Of Pan Importance:

Learn how cookware influences your health.

When I was a college student I acquired an old iron skillet. Like many things in college, I used it because I got it for free. Now I am convinced my second-hand skillet was a stroke of good health and I still cook with it twenty years later. Here’s why.

I want to avoid potentially exposing my food to the new chemicals used in cookware with nonstick surfaces. Yes, nonstick surfaces are probably safe when used as recommended. The recommendation is to discard any pan with scratches, dents or burns. Wait a minute. Pots are supposed to get scratched and scalded. Remember the idiom “Going to pots?”

Using my vintage skillet regularly also supplies me with sufficient iron. For this reason, skillets like mine are now prescribed to pregnant women on plant-based diets. Unfortunately when several African villages switched from iron skillets to aluminum and plastic cookware, not only blood iron levels, but general health and child survival measurably declined as well. In other words cookware selection can put someone’s health in the balance.

Could my iron skillet give unwanted iron? Women and children generally have too little rather than too much iron. In an amazing feedback system, the intestine can increase iron absorption five-fold based on minute-to-minute body needs and supply. However there is a genetic condition called primary hemochromatosis or iron overload, where the gut’s feedback loop is impaired. People with this inherited condition should avoid iron supplementation and eating food prepared in iron or stainless steel cookware. Instead they should use tempered glass cookware.

Care for an iron or stainless steel skillet like this:

  1. Scrub the warm skillet with a coarse brush.
  2. Don’t use soap. Soap residues can make food stick to the pan.
  3. Avoid soaking the pan in water.
  4. Dry the pan with a paper towel.
  5. Use the paper towel to coat the skillet with cooking oil.
  6. Choose among sesame, canola, toasted hazelnut, and extra virgin olive oil.
  7. Give the oiled, ready-to-use skillet a home on the range.
  8. Stainless steel is a good choice because the alloy contains 18% chromium, a trace mineral which helps build muscle and protect against diabetes. Scientific evidence is accumulating to suggest that Americans have lower than optimal chromium levels and may benefit from supplementation. Here are two pieces of evidence to suggest that stainless steel cookware may indeed be a good source of chromium. Chromium levels are elevated in surgical specimens removed with stainless steel surgical instruments. Chromium in beer is not from the brewers’ yeast, as I had been taught, but rather from the stainless steel brewing vats.

    Copper pots add enough copper to water to prevent bacteria from growing, and may therefore be useful to avoid travelers’ diarrhea. Otherwise avoid copper pots because most of us have too much copper, which is accentuated by too little zinc. The other concern with shiny copper pots is the potential exposure to the polishing material. Also avoid aluminum cookware because it has no health benefit and may even be harmful. Ongoing research suggests that aluminum exposure can make some people more susceptible to dementia and Parkinson’s disease. To reduce possible exposure to lead, another metal toxicant, discard ceramic cookware if it is chipped or if it is a souvenir from international travel.

    What should you choose if instead of the skillet, you want to grill it? Recent news linking heart disease, cancer, and grilling, has put a chill on the backyard summer barbeque. In light of these concerns, take the following steps to enjoy a fun and safe summer grill:

  9. Instead of charbroiling beef, pork, fish and chicken, grill meats at lower temperatures. Lower cooking temperatures reduce char and prevent carcinogens known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from forming in the smoke as animal fat drips on the fire.
  10. Choose lean meats to reduce the amount of fat that drips onto the flames.
  11. Do not eat the char formed on meats, because the char contains carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines.
  12. Smoke in the flavor. Soak mesquite or hickory chips in water for 15-30 minutes, place them over the coals, and close the lid. This generates a safe and delicious smoky flavor.
  13. Grill vegetables too! My favorite grillers include eggplant marinated in sesame oil and curry, bell peppers marinated in olive oil and teriyaki, portabella mushrooms marinated in sherry and steak spices. These veggies contain health-protecting, cancer-preventing nutrients and they are every bit as popular as meat. Don’t rely on sugary sauces to flavor meat. Instead choose quality meats, marinate, use spices and smoke the Chose quality meat where the flavor speaks for itself, marinate, and use spices. Soak mesquite or hickory chips in water for ½ hour. Let the chips fall over the hot coals. Smoke in the flavor.
  14. In summary, be sure to ask yourself, “Whatcha cook in?”

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