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It seems that every household purchase these days has been somehow complicated by health concerns, and cookware is no exception. Nonstick, aluminum, and even copper cookware have become concerning in recent years because of their tendency to leave trace deposits of chemicals and metals in food.
We looked into popular types of cookware and listed what you should know, based on available data, clinical trials, and user reviews, to make an informed choice about the cookware you use to prepare food for your family.
To make the brand recommendations below we relied on user reviews, the tests, analyses, and standards of organizations including Consumer Reports, the Cookware Manufacturers Association, and America’s Test Kitchen, and data available on manufacturers.
There are so many types of cookware that researching products can start to feel like an endless black hole of information. When you’re choosing a type of cookware, narrow it down by asking yourself the following questions:
How does it need to be cleaned?
Cookware needs to be cleaned thoroughly each time to avoid bacteria buildup and lower the risk of foodborne illness. The “safest” cookware in the world can still make you sick if it isn’t cleaned correctly.
Cleaning and care needs can be slightly different for cookware depending on its materials. Make sure you know what’s needed so you can decide if it’s worth it to you. (More on this for the types of cookware below!)
Will it hold up to everyday use?
We’re not always able to invest in high-quality, durable cookware, and that’s OK. Sometimes you just need a few affordable pots and pans to get you through a season when money is tight.
You can reduce wear and tear on your cookware to help it last a little longer by pairing it with the right cooking utensils. One example is wooden spatulas and cooking spoons. Wooden cooking utensils can cut down on the chances of scratching up nonstick coatings.
Are there evidence-based health risks?
This is the big question and may vary according to your perspective and health-history. If you know you have a nickel sensitivity, “safer” cookware options like stainless steel and copper might not work for you.
For people who have a health condition called hemochromatosis, cast iron isn’t a good option since the extra iron it adds to food could lead to too much iron in their system.
Was this product manufactured in an ethical or ‘green’ way?
Pots and pans can be a significant environmental waste hazard, both because of the way they’re produced and the fact that many don’t hold up well and equate to non-biodegradable junk after a couple of uses.
Buying products from companies that are transparent about manufacturing processes might set you back extra dollars, but will probably provide you with a product that will last.
Aluminum is a fairly lightweight metal that conducts heat rapidly. It’s also simple to clean and very inexpensive. Aluminum deposits get into your food when you cook with this metal — though chances are, you’ll never taste them. Most people consume 7 to 9 milligrams of aluminum each day.
People’s concern in recent years center around if aluminum exposure from cookware can be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Aluminum has never been definitively linked to Alzheimer’s. And according to the Alzheimer’s Association, there’s little chance that everyday cooking with aluminum plays any role in the development of the condition.
If you’re going with aluminum, anodized aluminum is the way to go.
Anodized aluminum cookware
Anodized aluminum cookware is treated with an acidic solution that changes how the metal behaves.
Anodized aluminum is easier to clean, can have “nonstick” qualities, and supposedly doesn’t cause leaching of aluminum into your food to the extent that regular aluminum does.
If you prefer to use aluminum, anodized may be a safer choice.
Recommended brand: All-Clad
Stainless steel is a metal alloy that typically contains iron, chrome, and nickel. It’s called “stainless” because it’s resistant to rust and corrosion, which makes it a great material to cook with.
Stainless steel tends to distribute heat evenly over its surface, making it especially great for griddle cooking and flat baking sheets.
As long as you soak stainless steel right away and always cook with a lubricant like cooking spray, it’s fairly easy to clean. It’s also inexpensive compared to some other materials.
There’s little reason to believe that cooking with stainless steel is harmful for your health. For stainless steel that will be durable and stand the test of time, consider finding products that have a copper or aluminum-based core.
Recommend brands: Le Creuset, Cuisinart
Not good for nickel Allergy
If you have a sensitivity or allergy to nickel, you may find that stainless steel aggravates your allergy.
Ceramic cookware is, for the most part, not pure ceramic. Ceramic pots and pans are made of metal and coated with a nonstick material (often silicone) that has a ceramic base.
Ceramic cookware needs to be cleaned by hand and some consumers say that it doesn’t conduct heat evenly across its surface.
Ceramic cookware claims to be “greener” and better for the environment, but the truth is that it’s still pretty new as far as mass production goes.
Ceramic cookware is most likely safe, but we also don’t know as much about it as we do some other cooking material. However, ceramic cookware is safe at higher temperatures than traditional Teflon nonstick pots and pans.
Keep in mind that items made purely from ceramic aren’t necessarily better. There are many kinds of glazes and the glaze used to seal the ceramic can leach unwanted material,
Recommended brands: Cook N Home, Greenpan
Cast iron cookware is a cult favorite for home chefs because of its durability. Cast iron cookware that has been seasoned correctly has nonstick qualities and gives food a distinct flavor that other kinds of pots and pans can’t duplicate.
Cast iron contains iron, and that iron can leach into your food. Cast iron is
Cast iron can be expensive, but it may be the only cookware you ever need to buy — it lasts for decades.
Cast iron isn’t difficult to clean as much as it requires a very specific method. A commitment of cleaning time and special cleaning products are part of the bargain when you purchase cast iron cookware.
Recommended brands: Lodge, Le Creuset
Increased iron levels
If you’re anemic, eating food cooked on cast iron can help improve your iron levels. But if you have hemochromatosis, a disorder that allows your body to absorb and hold onto too much iron in your blood, you should avoid cast iron cookware.
Copper cookware conducts heat well and contains copper, which similar to iron has nutritional value for people. Usually, this type of pan has a base made of another metal like stainless steel, with a copper coating over it.
Copper can leach into to your food in amounts that aren’t safe to consume. Unlined copper isn’t safe for everyday cooking, and common copper cookware coatings such as tin and nickel often aren’t much better.
Recommended brand: Mauviel
“Nonstick” is a category that can include different finishings and materials to make a pot or pan release cooked food from its surface more easily. “Nonstick” traditionally and most often refers to a proprietary coating called Teflon.
When nonstick cookware first became popular, it was lauded because of how easy to clean and simple to use it was. Nonstick cookware also required less butter and oil to lubricate the surface of pots and pans, which suggested that foods cooked with nonstick could contain less fat.
But a chemical used in the original Teflon formula was eventually shown to have links to thyroid disease, lung damage, and even short-term symptoms from inhaling fumes. This is sometimes called the “
The formula and compounds in Teflon was changed in 2013, so cooking with nonstick is thought to be safer using today’s nonstick products.
Keep in mind that cooking food at extremely hot temperatures still causes nonstick coating to break down and get into your food. It’s
Nonstick cookware is very common and affordable which makes it an easy option, but not necessarily the safest.
Recommended brands: All-Clad, Calphalon, Ozeri Stone Earth
Here are some food safety tips for cooking with any kind of cookware. These tips will minimize your exposure to any metals or materials that could be carried from your stove to your table.
- Don’t store food in the pots or pans where you’ve cooked it, unless you’re using glass or stone bakeware.
- Avoid using metal and hard utensils when you use your cookware, as they can scratch and compromise the surface of your pots and pans.
- Minimize the amount of time your food is in contact with metals from pots and pans.
- Use a small amount of lubricant, such as olive oil or coconut oil, with any type of cookware, to minimize the amount of invisible metal that sticks to your food.
- Clean pots and pans thoroughly after each use.
- Replace cookware made of aluminum or nonstick every 2 to 3 years or when gouges or scratches in the coating happen.
Purchasing cookware can feel overwhelming, so it’s important to do your research and determine what’s important to you when choosing these utensils.
There are legitimate safety concerns with some nonstick coatings and types of metal cookware, but they won’t affect everyone the same way.
Look at your budget, ask simple questions, and use the answers to guide you to the product that feels best for your family. If you can, buy cookware that will last a long time to reduce environmental waste and limit chemical and metal exposure in your food.