Teflon, Sushi, and the Natural Life



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.

4 thoughts on “Teflon, Sushi, and the Natural Life

  1. Sarah

    It’s interesting to me that you list your choices as stainless steel or teflon-coated. I have a stainless steel pan that I use for some things, but for things like eggs my go-to pan is my well seasoned cast iron skillet. It took me some effort to season it, but now it’s almost totally non-stick, doesn’t have any health risks, even has some health benefits and requires no special skill. For sauces and acidic things that can’t be made in a normal cast iron pan I have a wonderful enameled cast iron pot. Just wondered if you’d ever given cast iron cookware a try.

    1. Inger Wilkerson

      You know trying cast iron has been on my to do list for some time and I just haven’t gotten to it–I think that seasoning it can feel a bit intimidating. I do have an old aebleskiver (Danish round pancake) pan made of cast iron that my grandmother seasoned which works perfectly. Perhaps the next time I need a skillet, I will take the plunge. Glad to hear of your success.

  2. Becky

    Phasing out my teflon is one of my priorities this month as well. I’ve know that they “aren’t that great” for a while now but the convenience of cooking my pancakes & daily ham & cheese sandwhich (I’m pregnant – its a daily craving) sort of kept me from doing the research. My eyes were opened around New Year’s and since then I’ve been researching cast iron vs stainless steel. Looks to me like there are benefits to having a bit of each so those are my next purchases of the new year. Thanks for adding a few more facts to my arsenal of determination 🙂

    1. Inger Wilkerson

      I do pancakes and grilled sandwiches in my stainless steel frying pans as well! In fact grilled cheese is one of my favorite “desparate Mom” dinners for crunch times. Good luck in your resolution and congratulations on your pregnancy!

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