We now know that cookware with Teflon coatings and those with aluminum or copper surfaces are linked to major health risks that are potentially lethal.
For example, Teflon contains PTFE and PFOA which are toxins that have been associated with many health problems such as kidney and liver disease. Also, the intake of aluminum from pans has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, while copper leaching could cause heart issues and may lead to death.
But what about stainless steel? Is stainless steel cookware safe? It does have elements like iron, nickel, and chromium within its composition, so is it really a better choice to equip your kitchen? Well, let’s find out!
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel is a lustrous metal alloy that consists of several types of metals with varying proportions depending on the product at hand. However, the basic composition includes iron, carbon, nickel, and chromium. Molybdenum and Titanium may also be added to stainless steel alloys for further enhancement.
The star of the show is iron with added carbon. The role of carbon is to increase the hardness and strength of pure iron to create what we commonly recognize as steel.
Nickel is there for its anti-corrosion and heat resistance properties, while Chromium is added to enhance resistance against oxidation.
These elements react with oxygen to become a thin yet stable layer that prevents external water and oxygen from coming in contact with the stainless steel itself. To put it simply, these elements act as a protective barrier to battle rust.
Grades of Stainless Steel
Like we mentioned above, different proportions of these elements bring about many stainless steel grades. Actually, you can find over 150 stainless steel grades out there with a lot of applications in various industries.
But since we’re focusing on cookware, we’ll just brief you on the grades that you need to know about; the 300 series and the 400 series. These series are called food-grade stainless steel or food-safe stainless steel grades. They include 3 types which are:
304 Stainless Steel
304 stainless steel is the most common stainless steel grade used in manufacturing cookware. It contains chromium and nickel, so it’s very shiny and non-magnetic. It also offers decent resistance against rust and corrosion, but it doesn’t hold very well when exposed to salt.
316 Stainless Steel
You can think of the 316 stainless steel as a high-end version of the 304 SS since it delivers much better resistance to corrosion. It even resists the corrosion caused by salt exposure, earning the name marine stainless steel.
430 Stainless Steel
Unlike both the 304 SS and the 316 SS grades, 430 stainless steel is a stainless steel grade that’s almost free of nickel. The “almost” part is because this alloy does contain nickel but in very tiny traces that are negligible. The absence of nickel is indeed safer, but it means that the 430SS will slowly lose its luster and it’ll also be more prone to developing rust.
So, is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?
Yes, stainless steel cookware is safe, as long as you know how to buy and use it safely. This may not be the straightforward easy answer you were hoping for, but it’s really not that complicated!
The WHFood foundation classifies stainless steel cookware as one of the recommended cookware for healthier use. According to the foundation, stainless steel is less risky than aluminum and non-stick materials due to its stability.
Then what’s the problem? Well, when it comes to stainless steel cookware, the main concern is the leaching of metals included in the alloy. Keep in mind that leaching is more likely to occur in the case of low-quality products or damaged pots and pans, rather than high-quality intact stainless steel cookware.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the issues related to metal leaching so you can have a better understanding of the situation:
Stainless Steel Cookware and Leaching
You probably know that iron is one of the vital nutrients for our bodies to function properly. It’s the main component in red blood cells and takes part in numerous other reactions within the human body.
Granted, too much iron may be dangerous but in reality, stainless steel cookware provides less than 20% of total daily iron intake. Considering how most people don’t get enough iron from their diets in the first place, iron from stainless steel cookware poses no substantial threat to your health.
Perhaps the most serious concern regarding metal leaching is associated with nickel. After all, this element is number 58 on the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) Substance Priority List. In doses larger than 0.5 grams, nickel may be toxic to humans.
However, nickel sourced from stainless steel cookware is nowhere near this level. In fact, the amount is so small that it can be effectively disregarded even with repeated cooking.
So unless you’re using poor quality cookware or suffer from nickel sensitivity, you have nothing to worry about. If you are concerned about nickel leaching, you’d be better off switching to higher quality stainless steel grades such as 304 and 316, or nickel-free 430 SS if you’re allergic.
As for chromium, it’s also an essential element for good health but a recommended daily dose has not been established yet.
However, scientists did set a minimum amount of chromium that’s considered adequate, ranging between 20 and 35 micrograms. The normal intake in adults averages between 150 to 250 micrograms.
How can You Make Stainless Steel Cookware Safer?
When it comes to minimizing the risks of cooking in stainless steel cookware, you may be thinking that there’s not much to be done. However, this is far from the truth because the amount of nickel and chromium leaching depends on the stainless steel grade you’re using, how you use it, and for how long.
With those 3 points in mind, heres what you can do to reduce the risks:
- Go for high-quality stainless steel grades such as 304 SS and 316 SS. They offer higher resistance to rust and corrosion, which equals to less leaching.
- Avoid exposing stainless steel cookware to acidic foods. Such foods are characterized by having a low PH level below 7. Some examples of acidic food include citrus, vinegar, tomato, soy sauce, and wine.
- Never store food in stainless steel cookware. Mildly acidic foods will eventually react with the cookware if they remain in contact for enough time. So try to remove already cooked food from your stainless steel tools as soon as possible.
- Don’t overheat stainless steel pots or pans even when you know that stainless steel is more heat-resistant than other materials of cookware. Make no mistake, you can still overheat it to the point of causing damage, and in turn, releasing toxins.
- Use wood or silicone utensils to avoid scratching your stainless steel cookware. Similarly, clean your stainless steel pots and pans with soft sponges and non-abrasive cleaners to maintain the surface in top condition.