The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Eating Organic but Cooking Toxic

Cast iron pans have finally replaced teflon in my kitchen. And its about time. The main question is: Why didn't I do it sooner? I can't figure out what the worry was about. So far, they have been easy to use, easy to maintain, and very much non-stick. There are a few crumbs of eggs that get stuck to the bottom, but not enough to ruin a meal or cause excessive waste.

I was a little intimidated by cast iron, after hearing how you have to "prepare them" and use them in specific ways. I avoided using them for a while, even though I got a pan as a gift from Andy a while back. There's nothing to it, folks. Yes, you have to bake it covered with oil to create a non-stick coating when you first get it. Do a 2-minute internet search and follow someone's method. I just washed it thoroughly (no soap), coated it from top to bottom with olive oil, and threw it in a hot oven for a few hours. Done.

You can't wash them in soap. Just clean off any food with water and a sponge. I put them on the stove to dry immediately afterwards (to prevent rust), then put a light coating of olive oil to sit. But that's not hard.

Teflon pans are no walk in the park, either. You have to baby them. They can't go in the dishwasher, you can't scrape them or you'll lose the non-stick coating (not to mention toxifying yourself). The have to be replaced when the coating starts to peel. Where is the convenience? Food will still stick if you don't use enough oil or watch it while cooking.

I think we were led to believe that teflon was somehow easier. Michael Pollan talks about how many of the "conveniences" of modern culture are really not that convenient, but rather something we have been convinced through quite a bit of marketing. I wonder if the belief that teflon is easier than cast iron is related to this. Markers of teflon cookware probably stuffed their ads full of the promise of easy use.

The sad reality is that you can eat a diet of 100% organic foods and still pollute yourself silly through your food. How can this be? The way you preserve, store and cook your food may be the point where more toxins are added to your food than anywhere else. Check out this ultra-depressing list:

Metal cans give of BPA (except those at Trader Joes)--liked to cancer. Teflon pans emit enough fumes to kill a bird, if you had one in your kitchen. Teflon is also related to numerous cancers, such as liver cancer, although it is "not proven" of course. Aluminum cookware is linked to Alzheimers. I was horrified recently to find out that most crock pots contain a lead glaze. I couldn't believe that any cookware is still being produced with either lead or aluminum, but you really just gotta watch out for it. Plastics give off chemicals, especially in extreme eat or cold. Water from bottles tastes like plastic for a reason--avoid #7 plastic bottles in particular. Never put any plastic or styrofoam in the microwave, just keep a ceramic bowl handy. Even plastic bags can give off chemicals in the freezer.
(A lot of this is taken from this great article on the Non-Toxic Kids blog, including the comments at the end).

So my cast iron cooking is one good step in the right direction. Organics are still very much worth it by keeping pesticides out of your system as well as causing less environmental strain through better agricultural practices, but if your goal is toxic-free living, it may be just as important how you manage your food as much as which foods you buy.

As a side note: I only really need a non-stick cast iron pan for eggs. You can cook anything in stainless steel if you include a smidge or oil or water to keep it from sticking (but not too much to drown your food). Virtually anything can be cooked that way leaving nothing stuck to your pans if you do it right.

1 comment:

  1. Concerns over teflon are completely valid, as it's a chemical that's harmful to the body (including before and after it enters the home), but I wanted to address the specific claim that "teflon pans emit enough fumes to kill a bird." That's definitely true, but given the amount of alarming information on the net, I wanted to add some perspective on exactly when that situation is likely to occur, especially if you use proper cooking habits.

    Teflon does emit a lot of fumes and becomes a known health problem if its temperature gets above 500 or 600 degrees, which is the point it starts turning from a solid into a liquid. It seems that up until that temperature it's basically inert. (Chips can flake off, but it is believed that they mostly pass through you undigested.) When cooking without being careful, a pan can go above that temperature, but generally only if it's empty or is burning your food. If you have the heat turned up high, keep most of the teflon surface covered with whatever you're cooking, and don't burn it. Better yet, don't ever use high heat. As long as you have oil or water or food in the pan and cook properly, the teflon won't reach high enough of a temperature to release teflon fumes. (For instance, water can't go above 212 degrees no matter how high you heat it. Oil goes into the mid 300's.)

    Anyway, avoiding high heat is a really good idea in general. The fumes given off by burned food or even regular cooking oils at high heat may be worse than teflon. (And they also can kill birds!) If the smoke detector goes off or you smell something burning, you're most likely past the point of releasing a comparatively large amount of toxins into the air.