Are Teflon (Non Stick) Pans Safe To Cook In?

by on August 20, 2013

Are Teflon (Non Stick) Pans Safe To Cook In?

nonstick pans

One objection I often hear from readers is that they refuse to use non-stick pans to cook oil free cuisine because they believe they are not safe and are terrified of the teflon coating “leaching out” and “poisoning” their food. They believe they have to buy expensive ceramic pans (which often break or don’t last very long) thinking this is the only solution. I have personally received many complaints from readers about ceramic cookware not lasting and breaking as well.  I wanted to clear up this misconception on non-stick cookware. Dr. McDougall has actually already covered this topic in a newsletter article here: Non-Stick Pots and Pans: Are They Safe?

If you don’t want to read Dr. McDougall’s full article, here are the basics I am summarizing for you.

  • Dr. McDougall (and likely other doctors) have never seen anyone becoming sick and/or dying from exposure to surfaces on non-stick pans.
  • The EPA has asked 8 major manufacturers to reduce PFOA levels by 2010 and completely stop using it by 2015
  • PFOA is in non-stick pans, but also carpets, draperies, pillows, tape, clothing, food packaging like microwave popcorn bags and pizza box liners. But PFOA in pans is only a tiny percentage of our overall daily exposure.
  • Teflon (made by Dupont) states on their website that significant decomposition of the surface only occurs above 660 F/349 C, far above the smoke point of oils, and is only a concern if you leave your dry or empty cookware at a high temperature on the stove or in an oven. - So don’t do this. 
  • An independent study researched the effects of heating non-stick pans to 608 F/320 C and found no PFOA was generated.
  • The amount of PFOA released from microwaveable popcorn bags was hundreds of times higher than new non stick cookware heated to 347 F/175 C. – Don’t eat microwaveable bagged popcorn then for this reason. 
  • With repeated use non stick cookware produces almost no PFOA. -Another reason not to throw away your perfectly fine non-stick pans.
  • Other types of materials used in cookware are not entirely harmless either. Aluminum should never be used because of a casual relationship with Alzheimer’s Disease. Heating in plastics can release chemicals that are tied to birth defects, fertility problems and cancer. Iron, stainless steel and copper all can have negative effects as well, but are still recommended by Dr. McDougall as there is a low risk of harm from the metals released from these surfaces.
  • Use quality cookware, new pans have thick coatings that should not scratch or flake off, but even swallowing chips of teflon or non stick surface will not cause any health problems as it is inert.


So what do I recommend when using non-stick pans to stay safe?

#1. Use quality cookware, I have YET to need to replace my non-stick frying pans and I cook in water or vegetable broth all the time. My pans get heavy use by me and I have never had a problem. I only spent about $20-$30 on each pan, so nothing too extravagant. I have heard people cooking with oil have needed to replace pans more often, possibly due to cooking at very high heat with frying food.

#2. Follow the directions before using non-stick pans to cook for the first time! I remember putting water in my pan and bringing it to a boil on its first use and tossing the water after. Cooking with it after this first use makes it safer.

#3. Do not leave your pan on high heat empty or dry on the stove or in the oven. Put something in it! I use vegetable broth or water with zero problems cooking everything.

#4. Don’t cook it on high heat (if you’re still “concerned”) I never have a need to cook above medium high heat with my non stick pans. I usually only cook on medium (level 5) for sautéing my onions or veggies. I do occasionally steam/sauté veggies for a stir fry on high heat with liquid in the pan. This is fine as well.

#5. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to stir with while cooking so you don’t scratch or wreck your pan. I pretty much use a wooden spoon for everything.

I have had this question asked to me quite frequently, everyone wants to know exactly what ceramic pans I use (cuz non-stick seems so dangerous!!!) and I tell them I don’t use ceramic pans. Firstly, I don’t have endless money to keep upgrading the cookware I do have that works perfectly fine… In fact I have the same old basic Ikea pot set I’ve had for about 3 years and they didn’t cost me much money at all and they do the job. My non-stick fry pan is also from Ikea and was maybe $20. I bought a new larger (giant) 3 inch deep sauté pan for my skillet, stir fry and pasta recipes because I needed a bigger size. I think this pan cost me maybe $30. It’s been great without any chipping or scratching.

I have also had people freak out at my recommendations for the EZ Bean Cooker and Zojirushi Rice Cooker as both have non-stick inner pans (which work GREAT btw and are a breeze to clean!) mistakenly thinking the non-stick surface is somehow dangerous, when it’s not. I really prefer to cook in a non-stick pan than a stainless steel pan (which sticks) and there’s no reason to source out a more expensive unit just because it has a stainless steel interior. You’re not going to be cooking at levels anywhere near what it takes to produce fumes from these non-stick surfaces anyway, so do not worry.

I hope this information is helpful and you can breathe a little sigh of relief that you are NOT poisoning yourself by cooking in a non-stick pan. In fact I am far more concerned about Pam Non-Stick Cooking Spray and chemicals in microwaveable popcorn bags than non-stick pans. So it helps to have perspective and have priorities.

Cooking oil-free and plant based in non-stick pans is far far healthier than cooking in oil or lard in a cast iron skillet or an aluminum or stainless steel pan. So this is what I focus on. Oils can absorb chemicals as well as flavors and most oil (in a clear bottle) is rancid (just like fresh pressed juice gets oxidized and spoils quickly) and  so just be aware and focus your energy on the important things. Eating whole food, plant based and oil-free and then you can focus on organic, or fancy expensive cookware or whatever else you want once you master the basics and have achieved optimal health.

One last note, if someone in your family or that you cook for is celiac or allergic to gluten, it is very important to know that you cannot use pans that have been used to cook wheat or foods containing gluten (i.e. soy sauce and stir fry sauce) and then cook a gluten free dish for someone with an allergy. The non-stick surface will absorb gluten when heated and redistribute the gluten molecules into the new food. Very sensitive celiacs will become sick by this.  So when I cook for gluten free folks I have a separate set of non stick pans I use and keep those away from soy sauce, noodles and such. Just wanted to let you know about that as many people are not aware.

If you’re looking for some recommended non-stick frying pans click here and for a large deep non-stick skillet click here.

Did you know non-stick pans were actually safe? Have you spent a lot of money on alternative cookware unknowingly? Let me know below. (Please be respectful with your comments, any comments that are hostile or innapropriate will be moderated and removed from the blog.)

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15 Robyn August 24, 2013 at 10:35 AM

I was interested to read about the gluten issue in non-stick surfaced pans. I swear by my stainless steel cookware and foods that stick are still not a match to a good soaking and then a scrubbing with steel wool. It’s all about what you’re willing to do to take care of cookware. I also love my cast iron cookware.
I’m glad I read this article, however. If I ever see a non-stick coated pan that I want, I won’t hesitate to get it.


16 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 24, 2013 at 10:49 AM

I just find it so much hassle to scrub burnt food off of stainless steel pans, sometimes it takes a long time to get it off and it rips up my nails scrubbing with steel wool. So I find non-stick useful and that way I don’t have to add any oils or cooking spray. I use stainless steel for boiling and cooking soups mostly and my non-stick for sautéing and stir fries.


17 Chris August 22, 2013 at 2:27 PM

I’ve started using my old cast iron pans again and love them. Things tend to get crispy but don’t burn. I also have a Martha Stewart ceramic that works very well and seems to be holding up.


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19 Tami@NutmegNotebook August 21, 2013 at 11:35 PM

This was good information. Thank you for sharing and letting us all know its okay to use the non stick cookware we have.


20 Edith Tsacle August 21, 2013 at 2:30 PM

Thank you, Veronica, for this information. It puts my mind at ease…


21 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 3:23 PM

No problem. :)


22 Betsy Cosmos August 21, 2013 at 1:54 PM

Once again, Veronica, you are helping all of us focus on the important issues! Thanks so much for your thoughtful analysis and passing on your wisdom to the rest of us. You’re awesome :-)


23 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 3:22 PM

Thanks Betsy. One day I’ll make a #1 fan t shirt. :) :) :)


24 Denise Curtis August 21, 2013 at 1:44 PM

The EZBean Cooker I bought says you can ‘t omit the oil. What do you do about this. I only bought it because you recommended it so I was surprised when I read you had to use oil.


25 Edith Tsacle August 21, 2013 at 2:28 PM

Check Veronica’s video–she uses no oil and says others also have no problem using no oil in the EZ Bean cooker. I just got mine yesterday and am loving it! ‘made 2 batches of beans already ;-)


26 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 3:21 PM

Edith is correct. I DO NOT use any oil in my EZ Bean Cooker or any digital pressure cooker or stove top pressure cooker. I have never had a problem and I have cooked lots of beans. I believe they have to say this for legal reasons. Many others don’t use oil and don’t have a problem. I find cooking 1 pound of dried beans with 8 cups of water does not produce any foam anyway.


27 Tricia August 21, 2013 at 12:38 PM

Several years ago I bought a set of two hard-anodized pans by Sur-la-Table. They are the BEST pans I have ever used for not sticking. They only cost about $40 ( I think they are up to about $50 now) for the two of them, and they look and work as perfectly as the day I bought them, in spite of daily use. I never use any oil, and I don’t use high heat. I use the little OXO spatula. Clean up is literally just a quick wipe, except a tiny bit of food can get stuck around the rivets that hold the handle on, so I always check for that. Before I bought them, I did a lot of research and decided that hard-anodized is one of the safest surfaces. Although, like you, I think there are more important nutritional issues to worry about.

So, I think I’ll go cook some Rainbow Black Beans and Rice in one right now (I had the Garlicky Citrus Kale yesterday – loved it). I’ll use mayacoba beans. Can you get them in Canada? They are similar to pinto, but yellow, and have a taste and texture that has made them my favorite type of beans.


28 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 3:23 PM

Thanks Tricia. No I have never tried mayacoba beans, I really doubt I’d find them easily here. Perhaps in a latin market?

Glad you enjoyed the garlicky kale. :)


29 Woofgang August 21, 2013 at 11:25 AM

Induction cook tops generally require stainless steel or cast iron. Non-stick pans are not usually an option for that type of cook top surface.


30 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 11:42 AM

I actually use a glass top induction cook top right now anyway with my non stick pans and it works fine. At my last place I had a gas which I prefer but this is all I have now in my new rental.


31 Melba Preece August 21, 2013 at 10:34 AM

I am relieved to hear that you and the Dr. are not condemning my non-stick pans. I have used the stainless steel pans and they would stick terribly so I haven’t used them in years. I like my Teflon pans and will continue to use them. Thank you very much for this article.


32 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 10:36 AM

You’re very welcome Melba. Teflon pans work very well.


33 Rachel August 21, 2013 at 10:18 AM

I am one of those who has spent thousands in good pans just recently I was telling my husband to have a look at my nice ceramic pot I purchased from a well known chef it does not work as well as Teflon and the exterior is completely scratched. I agree with you Veronica I’m tired of all these scary stories, please, we need real non-stick especially with low-fat or no fat. Thank you Veronica for putting Dr. McDougall’s article. Rachel.


34 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Hi Rachel, I’m sorry to hear that, that is very disappointing. So many people tell me their expensive alternative pans don’t last as long and that is sad to hear. I never have any sticking with a quality non stick pan even if I use water or just sauté onions dry. So these pans really work for me and I think I would be disappointed as well if I upgraded and found difficulty cooking oil free on these pans and having it not work as well.


35 kevin August 21, 2013 at 10:06 AM

yes I have spent hundreds of dollars buying alternative cook wear that never lived up to it’s claim of non stick. So this revelation is very welcome to me and I will read Dr. McDougal’s article I have every respect for him. Thank you


36 Low Fat Vegan Chef Veronica August 21, 2013 at 10:13 AM

Thanks for sharing Kevin. Sorry to hear you haven’t had great experience with expensive cookware. I often wonder too, but I am still using my current sets as they work perfectly fine.


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