The eco-safe kitchen

You've probably heard talk of harmful chemicals in some pans and food containers. So what's safe for your family?

Toronto dad Franz Hartmann had heard there might be cancer-causing chemicals in non-stick pans, so he tossed his after he noticed it was peeling. “I didn’t want my daughter eating flakes coming off it,” says the father of a nine-year-old. But Hartmann confesses he soon replaced it with a new one. “I need a non-stick for making pancakes, but I only use it every two weeks so it stays in perfect condition.”

That’s the kind of compromise parents make every day as they balance potential kitchen hazards with the tasks of daily life.

You might think that if you buy something in Canada, the government has vetted it for safety before it hits store shelves. “That would be a misinformed assumption,” says Paul Chowhan, manager of the chemistry and flammability division for the Consumer Product Safety Bureau of Health Canada. “No country in the world has the capacity to examine all products in stores. The sheer number of manufacturers’ innovations makes that impossible.”

Health Canada sets out regulations and guidelines for manufacturers and retailers, and runs spot checks where it suspects goods have run afoul of standards. So the good news is that most of the things we use to make and store food — cookware, bakeware, food storage containers and utensils — are safe. But there’s no ducking the bad news that some potentially harmful items slip in under the radar.

Pots and pans
Your safest choices are stainless steel, cast iron and enamelled cast iron; these have no harmful effects.

As for pans and baking sheets with non-stick coating, can they really leach carcinogens into food, as Franz Hartmann had heard? As it turns out, not really. The danger stems not from the coating itself, but from the manufacturing process. A chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used to make the coating. While studies show PFOA is a “likely” cause of cancer in rats, it should not remain in cookware or non-stick utensils after they’re made.

“The chemical ingredient should be used up in the manufacturing process,” explains Chowhan. In fact, Health Canada’s site states there’s no risk of PFOA exposure from using cooking utensils and equipment with non-stick coatings.

However, keep non-stick pans below temperatures of 350ºC (650ºF). “Don’t leave non-stick pans on the burner without food in them because the temperature will climb and they could emit toxic gases,” warns Pamela Scharfe, a certified public health inspector and trustee of the Environmental Health Foundation of Canada (EHFC), a national non-profit organization of public health professionals. Once pans are scratched or peeling, throw them out. Damaged coatings can off-gas, which is a fancy way of saying toxic elements can leach out into food.

So-called “green” non-stick pans — which have a ceramic-based coating — are unregulated at this time. While the ceramic coating may be free of cancer-causing chemicals, ventures Chowhan, the way the coating is adhered to the body of the pan may be a process akin to that of other non-sticks, so exercise similar care.

If you have aluminum cookware, don’t worry about the commonly held belief in a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. Health Canada says the two milligrams or so of aluminum that enters food during cooking is well within the adult daily allowance of 50 milligrams. However, avoid pots that become worn or pitted, as the amount of lost aluminum would increase.

Silicone bakeware and utensils
Soft silicone baking pans are becoming popular because they’re easy to use; even utensils such as whisks and spatulas are made from silicone. And as far as anyone seems to know, they are perfectly safe. “Silicone has no known hazards associated with it,” says the EHFC’s Scharfe. “It’s a synthetic rubber that does not react with food.”

Another silicone tool is parchment or baking paper, which is sold in supermarkets for lining baking sheets and pans. Its silicone coating prevents foods from sticking.

Chowhan says it is not regulated by Health Canada so it’s important for consumers to check manufacturers’ instructions for proper use. Websites can be helpful if box info is scant. The corporate site for Reynolds Wrap, reynoldspkg.com, specifies parchment not be used at temperatures over 420ºF. Scharfe says parchment is intended for one use and should not be reused. And if you’re concerned, you can always opt for the old-time method of greasing your pans.

Plastic containers, utensils and wraps
Experts stress that plastics should not be used for anything other than manufacturers’ intended purposes. This is to prevent “plasticizers” — chemicals that keep plastic flexible — from seeping into food.

Plastic food containers are a prime concern. “Don’t reuse items that were meant for one use only,” warns Health Canada’s Chowhan. Yogurt and margarine containers should not be used to store leftovers, for example, and never put them in the microwave. One-use containers could deteriorate with repeated use and microwaving can cause the plastics to off-gas. Of course, it’s still OK to use the handy little tubs for non-food purposes such as holding crayons.

On the plethora of reusable plastic food containers on the market, Chowhan advises, “If it doesn’t say it’s microwave-safe, don’t put it in the microwave.” And don’t get sidetracked by claims that plastics stamped with certain numbers are food-safe. “Those numbers have to do with the recycling stream,” he says, “not food safety.”

Glass food containers — though many have plastic lids — are thought to be a safer option. And wooden or metal cooking utensils can take the place of plastic ones.

Hard plastics may present hazards even if they’re not microwaved. Food, water and pop containers and baby bottles are frequently made with polycarbonate plastic (stamped with the number 7) that could contain bisphenol A (BPA), a suspected carcinogen, according to the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health & Environment.

Canada’s prohibition on BPA use in baby bottles comes into effect this year, but doesn’t apply to other kinds of containers. Manufacturers have voluntarily limited the use of BPA in recent years, but it’s still found in the linings of most food and drink cans.

In the case of water bottles, switching to stainless steel is a viable alternative. But you can’t always do without plastics. Scharfe offers this rule of thumb: “If the plastic is warped, scratched, peeled or stained, discard it.” As for plastic wraps, Scharfe says, “some wraps say they’re microwave-safe, but that means they won’t melt in the microwave. By-products could still leach into food.” Instead, she advises, cover foods with paper or tea towels for microwaving.

Chopping boards
Adhesives used to bond wooden chopping boards may contain formaldehyde, which can cause cancer.

“There may be hazards with wooden boards that have joins and inlaid pieces,” observes Scharfe. The risks can include bacteria hiding in joints and inlays, where it’s hard to clean and sanitize. Check manufacturers’ marketing materials for detailed info on formaldehyde. Or change to glass cutting boards (though they are harder on knives), solid wood boards or “formaldehyde-free” bamboo boards. The jury is out on plastic cutting boards, but it’s advisable to toss any with deep cuts. Scharfe notes the same would be true of any cutting board, no matter what it’s made of: Clean and sanitize it after each use and discard it when it’s marked with deep cuts or heavy stains.

Dishes and glasses
Ceramic dishes generally don’t carry risks because their glazes are usually some form of glass. But some decorative glazes may contain toxic lead and cadmium. Canadian-made mass-manufactured glazed ceramics and glassware are federally regulated, so your safest bets are always glass, china, stoneware, porcelain and earthenware recently made in in this country.

Canadian artisanal crockery is unlikely to contain lead or cadmium because it’s virtually impossible to purchase those materials anymore. “We haven’t sold any in decades,” says Frank Tucker, owner of Tucker’s Pottery Supplies in Richmond Hill, Ont. They stopped carrying the products when the hazards became known.

But glazed pieces you bring back from your travels may not meet Canada’s stringent rules. Tucker recently saw Mexican pieces glazed with a hue he suspected of containing a bad mixture of copper and lead. So that pretty painted platter in your luggage should be just for decoration, not serving food. Likewise, be careful when using antique crockery, which may contain higher levels of lead.

With drinking glasses, the plainer, the safer. Glazed rims with colourful or metallic finishes risk dubious compounds touching the lips.

The best advice is to remember that all man-made containers and surfaces will eventually break down into their chemical components. Limit their use and watch for wear and tear.

As Paul Chowhan of Health Canada says, “All chemicals pose some risk. Do your own investigations and get a balanced view.”