On Jan. 4, 2011, I did a post about techniques for frying in stainless steel. DuPont provided a comment in defense of non-stick coatings, and this post will continue the discussion. There is a lot of science around the chemicals in these coatings; the minutiae could almost bury you. So I have decided to provide just a couple of highlights:
Wikepedia discusses the impact of high heat on PTFE (the main component of non-stick coatings). Here they reference temperatures higher than the Consumer Reports testing that DuPont cited indicating safety:
While PTFE is stable and nontoxic, it begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F), and decomposes above 350 °C (662 °F). These degradation byproducts can be lethal to birds, and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans.
Meat is usually fried between 200 and 230 °C (392 and 446 °F), and most oils will start to smoke before a temperature of 260°C is reached, but there are at least two cooking oils (safflower oil and avocado oil) that have a higher smoke point than 260°C. Empty cookware can also exceed this temperature upon heating.
Gee, I hate to admit the number of times I’ve overheated a pan…
Beyond use of the product, there are concerns around the manufacturing process which can release PFOA into the air and water. Recent Medscape articles (free subscription may be required) link PFOA to thyroid disease and fertility declines in women and men.
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There are volumes of science that could keep you reading for weeks. In the end, however, I believe this particular issue lends itself to a relatively simple calculation–what is the cost versus benefit.
One criterion that I apply in deciding to use a specific product is the risk benefit ratio. If there is risk (personal, environmental or societal risk), but there is also a significant benefit, I will go with a product. Sushi is my favorite example—probably not as safe as cooked fish, but not too dangerous (prepared right) and delicious!
In addition, because science is continually evolving, I know we must often deal with incomplete evidence. As much as I would like to be omniscient, life is full of daily decisions that can’t be put off. I like to recognize something akin to Canada’s Precautionary Principle (paraphrased in the film A Chemical Reaction as “better safe than sorry”) and assess any risk based on the data available, even if imperfect.
How do I apply this to non-stick pans? Stainless steel works so well and is so easy that I am hard pressed to find a real benefit in the alternative. On the other hand, questions of risk seem to be fair.
So this morning I pulled out my stainless steel pan and fried another egg. I will be sticking to my stainless steel—figuratively of course.
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