Can non-stick cookware make you sick?

More cooks are making a return to clay, stone and cast iron pots and pans. Here's why

Earthenware was traditionally used in many Indian kitchens before non-stick cookware grew in popularity. Photo: Neeraja Arjun
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Neeraja Arjun, a homemaker from the South Indian city of Chennai, started thinking seriously about health and wellness after her daughter was born a few years ago. One of the first changes she made in her kitchen was to replace her light and shiny non-stick cookware with traditional cast iron, earthen and stone utensils.

She now cooks entirely in fragile mann chattis (squat clay pots), heavy kal chattis (soapstone pans) and sturdy cast iron skillets.

“Earlier, whatever I did was based on convenience. But when my daughter came along, nutrition became top of mind. And the more I read, the more determined I was to not use non-stick pots and pans again.”

Arjun is not alone in making this shift. While cooking utensils made of metals, clay and soapstone have been used by generations of Indian women to make crispy dosas, flaky parathas, spicy curries and even crusty cornbread, there has been a rise in the popularity of non-stick cookware in the last few decades.

This comes with a synthetic polymer coating called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, more commonly known by the brand name Teflon) that allows food to be browned and roasted without it sticking to the surface. Its popularity can also be attributed to the fact it allows for less use of oil and fats in cooking, along with being convenient to use and clean.

Stone, metal and earthenware contain minerals intrinsically, and so they are better absorbed and utilised by the body
Nehal Vaishnav, nutritionist

However, healthy fats (think ghee, jaggery and some oils) that once had a bad rap, have since redeemed themselves. And the rekindled interest in cookware made of more traditional materials has been prompted mainly by health concerns.

Chaitali Patel, a writer living in Dubai, says she decided to switch when she kept hearing that “harmful chemicals used in coating non-stick vessels leach into the food that gets cooked in it”.

Nehal Vaishnav, a nutritionist from Bengaluru, confirms that chemically manufactured non-stick coating has been found to seep into food, and this can cause problems to the liver, kidney and other organs over a prolonged period.

The problem is not with the coating material itself, but in the fact it erodes over time with exposure to cleaning soap and scrubs, releasing micro-chemical particles from the coating that are then slowly ingested into the system. “Ideally, the pan should be thrown away once the non-stick coating starts chipping off. The danger is when we keep using it and I have seen that in many homes,” says Arjun.

While experts are still divided on whether minuscule amounts of Teflon particles can cause any real harm, there has been growing awareness about the benefits of cast iron and earthenware. Patel echoes the sentiments of many new users when she says: “I have read that cooking in iron utensils is also a good way of increasing one’s iron intake.”

Rujuta Diwekar agrees. The celebrity nutritionist shared a video on Instagram a few months ago, urging her followers to revert to traditional cookware, especially those made from iron. She called using an iron tava, kadhai and karchi a “kitchen secret for good energy and haemoglobin levels”.

Vaishnav says research also shows that soapstone preserves nutrition and flavour better than steel or non-stick cookware, plus improves our calcium and magnesium levels. “All these stone, metal and earthenware contain minerals intrinsically, and so they are better absorbed and utilised by the body.”

The longer cook-time that these traditional materials often require is another draw as more people embrace the slow food movement.

However, adjusting to traditional cookware, with its special curing and cleaning needs, takes time and effort, especially for those accustomed to the easy use and maintenance of non-stick utensils. Patel says: “Cast iron utensils are both expensive as well as super-heavy, making it difficult to use them all the time. I was also nervous that I would have to use more oil, but luckily, the Staub [a cast iron pan brand] I have doesn’t require too much. So it’s been a good switch, and I am evaluating what I want to invest in next.”

Updated: May 30, 2023, 1:39 PM