Not Getting “-alon” Anymore

posted in: Ruminations | 31

In this month’s Harper’s Magazine, Mark Schapiro explores the tremendous oversight of 62,000 chemicals in manufactured consumer goods that the U.S. has never tested for safety. His research finds in the blood of a 19-year-old Italian woman, “brominated flame retardants, which are potential liver, thyroid, and neurological toxins that are used to coat many electronics; the pesticides DDT and lindane… perfluorinated chemicals, known carcinogens that are used as stain- and water-repellents on clothing, furniture, and nonstick cookware; and artificial musk aromas… that scientists claim can reduce the body’s ability to expel other toxins.”

Prompted by these concerns and no longer accepting the American government’s loophole of allowing any chemical on the market pre-1979 to stay unchecked, the E.U. has formed a new bureau of regulation on chemicals, REACH. This telling shift in both environmental and public health standards and economic power is at the core of Schapiro’s article, as well as his new book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s At Stake for American Power.

Because I’m feeling passionate about this subject, I want to take a rare opportunity to share a little about what I currently do as my 9-5. I write copy for a large retailer of home goods, and have become interested in the many new brands of nonstick cookware on the market: Analon, Calphalon, to name a couple. So even before I read this article, out of genuine curiosity, I tried to ascertain what the differences were between these types of coatings and, hopefully, to find out if they posed any dangers. Well. Conducting online research for the safety of these products, I’ve discovered, is like wandering into a greasy spoon diner in the middle of Kansas and asking for a macchiato. Fingers pointed mainly to Teflon, the brand that made a public safety stink several years ago that’s now been decently quieted by DuPont, its manufacturer. (Over a year ago, this company and several others agreed to phase out the use of the dangerous, cancer-causing chemical PFOA in their products by 2015 — not something they’d want you to know about in the meantime.)

So instead of finding information about the relative safety of Calphalon or Analon, I mainly found information about how their dynamic products were innovative and fantabulously amazing to use and clean. Swell. After reading the article in Harper’s, though, “innovative” is not where I want to be when it comes to the safety of my everyday pan. And let’s not forget, I cook nearly everything I eat!

Eventually, thanks in part to the ubiquitous freedom of speech via private websites, I concluded that Analon, Calphalon, anything-“alon,” and essentially anything that says it has a “nonstick coating” use dangerous, yet not fully tested, perfluorinated chemicals. As an owner of nonstick cookware, I’m not proud of the fact that I hadn’t known my government was harboring a sneaky, “not-tested for safety, not a problem” attitude in the past 30 years of environmental and public health regression. Fat and happy, of course, on the chemical industry’s spending for this purpose.

On the same day I read this article, I placed an order for a stainless steel and copper-bottom heavy 9″ covered skillet. I can be a little impulsive — but this was the best impulse buy in my life. The savior in stainless steel arrived gleaming and satisfyingly heavy. Not only did it distribute heat perfectly so that my fresh tomato sauce with pasta cooked up surprisingly quickly, but it browned meat beautifully, popped popcorn delightfully (and I mean not one of those kernels burnt), and it braised my green beans with sundried tomatoes the second time around with ease while sticking to no pieces of garlic or vegetables even under hot-hot heat with just a tiny splash of oil. So I’ve decided that “nonstick” pans are an unnecessary potential risk that my kitchen — and life — simply needs not.

And, I mean, look at it this stainless steel pan: It’s beautiful. It’s been a breeze to clean (so far). It’s so shiny that you can see me taking a picture on it. Its bottom is ringed with copper (or you could just get a pricier all-copper one) that’s starting to develop this cool patina. Its bottom is so heavy that my wrists hurt when I tip it to pour sauce from it. But they will get stronger. As will, theoretically, the rest of my vital organs.

Now I’m shaking my head, wondering why I never learned more about nonstick cookware before. Because I thought it was just Teflon, I suppose. Because I was raised on nonstick cookware, and my mother uses it, and how can you argue with that? Well, sorry to say it, Mom…

31 Responses

  1. ohiomom

    I don’t use non-stick cookware. I stopped buying it over 20 years ago when I noticed the “nonstick” surface coming off … into my food ?

    I bought my cookware one piece at a time at a restaurant supply house and absolutely love the even cooking it provides.

  2. joanne

    My mom warned me about nonstick cookware years ago. She couldn’t explain all the details, just that she heard it wasn’t good for you on her local radio station. Of course I’m of the age that when my mom tells me something, I’m gonna listen. (Sorry it took so long mom!) I don’t have many non stick items in my kitchen, but reading this I find I have the ‘alon’ cookware. The small wok, I hardly use, the electric frying pan, and the worst thing. My Williams Sonoma specialty bakeware! I’m heartbroken, my lovely petit four molds have some type of gold tinted non stick release coating. Most of my bakeware isn’t non stick, and I do try to buy stainless steel or copper only. Most all the food that is consumed in my home is made by me. This coating is insidious!

  3. Lisa

    I’ve always thought nonstick stuff was a bit icky, plus all that fussing about what kind of utensils you can use with them. I’ve always stayed away. I will admit to owning Calphalon anodized stuff, which also requires that you not ding it up with metal tools, but still. These days I’m all about the cast iron. You season it and it’s ready to go, and you can do pretty much ANYTHING to it without hurting it. Plus it conducts heat like a mofo. Just make sure you have two hands free — the stuff is heavy.

  4. Emily C

    I registered for Calphalon pans when I was engaged. But I was engaged to a doctor, who insisted (rightly, I quickly found out) that we should stay away from both nonstick and aluminum pans due to health concerns. The engagement didn’t last, but my hard-anodized aluminum pans have stood by me faithfully. They cook better than nonstick anyway.

    So, nice move switching away from -alon.

    Link about hard-anodized aluminum here (note — it is a link to the Calphalon site)

  5. lindsey

    the NYTimes had a nice little article about what to cook with when you get up the nerve to dump your teflon.

    i haven’t managed to find a carbon-steel pan in my price bracket though. i did just order some vintage copper skillets from ebay…i can’t wait until they arrive. i think interiors are stainless steel?

  6. Sue

    Well, I guess I am tossing that non-stick pan that just started to flake! Scary stuff. I mean, I don’t need a nanny state, but I also would rather my cookware didn’t kill me.

    Even creepier is the non-regulation of foam (in our furnishings, mattresses and carpet etc…)that is not a fun read either. They are phasing those out as well….eventually. Sheesh….protective gov agency, my a**.

    The new pan is a beaut!

  7. Laura Wehrman

    What about the safety of Le Creuset? Please tell me that there is not a problem with them! I have a dutch oven that I cook in all the time and have for many years. The bottom is coated in enamel, I think.
    I also have a large frying pan from them that is cast iron on the bottom. Thanks

  8. Laura Wehrman

    a quick FYI: Please make sure that you recycle all those gross and scary non-stick pans. The city recycles all metal things of 50% or more metal. No sense in harming the environment as well. Thanks

  9. Tash

    Hi – I’ve been reading your blog for a while (excellent, btw) and I can point you in the direction of someone excellent in this field. His blog goes by the name of The Angry Toxicologist and he’s written numerous times about the dangers of PFOA the chemicals you have mentioned in products like Teflon…

    The article is here:

    Enjoy! No, perhaps enjoy is the wrong word, but you know what I mean.

  10. cathy

    Hi Laura: Le Creuset Dutch ovens are made of cast iron coated in vitreous enamel (, which has been used in cookware for centuries (and simply cast iron, for even more centuries). So the problem really concerns all the chemicals on the market post-WWII, like PFOA, that are constantly introduced to us in all these zippy names that we have no idea how to decipher. This is why crusaders like Schapiro and — wow! Thanks Tash! — the “Angry Toxicologist” are my new favorite heroes.
    Lindsey: Thank you so much for the NY article! And everyone else for your helpful suggestions!

  11. Laura Wehrman

    Thanks Cathy! Very happy about the Le Creuset. I read that great NYT article and emailed it around to my friends and family. Any thoughts on Silpat?

    I actually went to Bed Bath & Beyond today for other items and went to the cookware section. There was a huge section of non-stick cookware right next to a huge pink breast cancer awareness display. Kind of ironic.

  12. Ariel

    Laura: I too was at Bed Bath & Beyond (more affectionately known as Bloodbath & Beyond in my house) checking out their cast iron selection. Not much! I must have circled that section 10 times to only find a small bit of Le Creuset hiding among the huge sea of nonstick.

  13. Deborah Dowd

    I swore off non-stick coatings years ago, but for practical reasons. Is there anyting stickier than a non-sitck pan past its prime? Also, Iactually posted about the use of sprays like PAM on nonstick, which I didn’t knowabout till a friend of mine told me that using these sprays makes your nonstick very sticky!

  14. Stephanie

    Firstly, I just stumbled across this blog recently. Your recipes (and your pictures) are amazing!

    I have to ask, Cathy – what is that gorgeous pan? This post has finally tipped me over into the anti-nonstick camp, and I’m really curious as to what you bought.

  15. cathy

    Thanks, Stephanie! And this here pan happens to be a Tools of the Trade “Belgique” Copper-Bottom Covered Sauté. I love it. Good luck!

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  17. kim h

    I was thinking of buying a couple of belguique off ebay, do these have aluminum in the base also or copper only? where are they made at?

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  20. Lloyd Hanson

    Here is from the Calphalon web site

    The nonstick coatings applied to the cookware of Calphalon are safe. Calphalon cookware’s nonstick coatings have been approved for food contact surfaces by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    Yet you say say that approval has never been achieved.

    Some one is lying. Is it you?

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