Living Organic: The Hard Anodized Aluminum Cookware Debate

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Deciding to cook your meals more often, rather than always relying on takeout, is a giant step in healthy living. Cooking requires some basic tools, such as a decent set of pans. Hard anodized aluminum cookware is popular and readily available, but is it the best choice?

In your quest to live organically, you may have heard rumblings about which cookware is the safest. The potential threats are mostly limited to chemicals used in certain nonstick coatings and the use of aluminum in cooking pans. Does this apply to hard anodized aluminum cookware? What is the difference between aluminum and hard anodized aluminum cookware?

The idea that anodized aluminum cookware pans might lead to health problems is troubling because many quality affordable pans contain aluminum. Also, we are virtually surrounded by aluminum products in our daily lives, so there could be other areas in which we are unwittingly compromising our health. What is anodized aluminum cookware, and should you be concerned?

The Many Aspects of Organic Cooking

For many, organic cooking has become an essential way to ensure that they are treating their bodies well. Fresher, less processed ingredients grown or raised organically are better for your health and are also often highly beneficial to the planet. Although people are increasingly scrutinizing their ingredients, healthy eating may require a closer look at cooking tools as well. Think about it — if you invest the time and money to stock your cupboards and refrigerator with organic items, you wouldn't want to cook them in a manner that countered your best intentions. If given a choice between a stainless steel pan or anodized aluminum cookware, which aligns best with organic living?

The answer is not crystal clear. Not everyone agrees that aluminum pans are problematic. The debate in the world of organic cooking is considerable, with strong opinions on each side. Since how you cook your food is as important as the food you choose, those looking to live organically may want to look closer at cookware. We set out to explore both sides of the aluminum cookware controversy. We'll explore the different types of aluminum pans, the potential health concerns, and dive into what medical science says about the debate.

How Anodized Aluminum Cookware Affects Health

Before we get into the potential negatives of aluminum, let's consider the role of cookware in health. Cookware sets usually include a large frying or saute pan, a smaller saute pan or an omelet pan, and medium and small-sized saucepans. Out of all of these pans, you will likely put the most miles on the large saute. In this pan, you can cook one-pot meals, stir-fry, sear meat and generally cook most stove-top dishes. If you pick up an ovenproof cookware set, you can use the large saute pan as a roasting pan as well.

Types of cookware materials

Pans come in a variety of metals and other materials, such as stone. Professional chefs often use higher-end materials, such as commercial grade stainless steel. Steel is durable and cooks evenly, but many stainless steel pans are thin and poorly designed. Some steel pans come with nonstick coatings or contain other metal components, such as a copper core for improved heating consistency.

Other pan materials include solid copper — noted for its strength as a saucepan and for candy making. Black steel pans are highly sought-after by foodies who want to emulate their favorite chefs. Cast iron is a popular rugged choice. Many people swear by the natural nonstick qualities that appear only over time in a cast iron pan. Another popular, but newer choice is ceramic. Some of these pans also contain aluminum at their core, as the metal provides even heating.

Anodized aluminum cookware is popular because it is a relatively inexpensive material that is hardened and transformed through the anodizing process. Anodizing is an electrochemical process that changes the structure of aluminum, making it durable, corrosion-resistant, and nonreactive. It's this last part — reactivity to certain foods — that is at the center of the cookware's controversy.

Concerns About Aluminum

Anodized Aluminum Cookware

Aluminum is all around us.  It is the most abundant metal in the earth's crust and the third most prevalent element in the entire planet. In addition to being made into pots and pans, aluminum is in wires, house siding and flashing, and is in deodorants and cosmetics. It's even in some things we eat, such as antacids and buffered aspirin.

There have been some studies that linked high levels of aluminum exposure to Alzheimer's disease. This devastating neurological condition causes protein plaque to build up in the brain, significantly impairing brain function as the disease progresses. It's a scary and heartbreaking affliction, so if there is a connection between aluminum and Alzheimer's, it's a good idea to steer clear of the metal. But the studies are not conclusive about the effect of small amounts of aluminum. Scientists are also not 100 percent certain of the exact source of excess aluminum exposure. Since aluminum is plentiful in our environment and is present in every human's blood, it's not easy to hide from the substance.

Then there is the question of how much aluminum can enter food through cooking. This is called aluminum leaching, where molecules of aluminum dissolve into food, resulting in a potentially harmful concentration of aluminum in our bodies. Or does it?

The Aluminum debate in the medical community

As a first counterpoint to the aluminum cookware debate, tests have shown that the actual amount of aluminum that leaches into food is minimal. Independent cookware researchers from Cook's Illustrated, the Consumer Reports of home cooking, ran a test where a reactive food simmered in an aluminum pot for over two hours. After cooking, the food contained .0024 milligrams of the metal per cup. To put that in context, a single antacid pill contains 200 milligrams of aluminum.

The second objection to avoiding aluminum pans is whether or not aluminum is harmful in the first place. The EPA has stated that oral consumption of aluminum is generally harmless. According to the agency, health risks are more prevalent for those who experience workplace exposure to the metal, such as breathing in ambient aluminum in metalworking factories.

Non-medical aluminum concerns

Other problems with aluminum in cooking are less debatable but are also less severe. Acidic foods, such as lemons and tomatoes, unquestionably react with regular aluminum pans, creating less than desirable flavors and appearance. Tomato sauce tastes tinny, and lighter foods, such as a vinegar-based sauce, can take on a greyish hue. Certain foods can cause pitting to an aluminum pan's surface as well.

Benefits of Hard Anodized Aluminum Cookware

Anodized aluminum cookware changes the health and flavor discussion. Since the anodizing process transforms the metal in the cookware, it becomes more durable and less susceptible to leaching. Hard anodized aluminum cookware is nonreactive. As a result, your anodized aluminum cookware provides an electrochemical barrier between aluminum and your food. This layer comes from oxidation, rather than a sprayed-on synthetic component that might contain other harmful material.

If it's Questionable, Why Use Aluminum at All?

You may be wondering why one would use any kind of aluminum cookware if there is even a slight risk of Alzheimer's disease or other afflictions. This is a sensible question. It seems that the easiest solution is to avoid all aluminum, including anodized aluminum cookware. As we discussed, there is no shortage of options.

Some point to the low-risk level and convenience of anodized aluminum cookware. With an anodized pan, you most likely will have a cooking tool for life. They are highly resistant to warping and are near-impervious to damage.

Other Questionable Cooking Tools

Aluminum is not the only material that may be dangerous to health when used in cooking. Other problematic materials include nonstick coatings and some cooking oils used in the pans.

Nonstick coatings

Non-stick pan

Nonstick pans contain a layer of material, such as Teflon, which has fluorine atoms that repel almost anything. Teflon has been around for a while, and many older pans contain PFOA, which is a known carcinogen. Today's pans are free of PFOA, but many people have cookware that has been in their cabinets and dangling from their pot racks for years.

Some are concerned that, PFOA-free or not, Teflon can flake away from a frying pan and get consumed. If you accidentally eat some pieces of Teflon, you will likely experience no ill effects as the material would just harmlessly pass through your body. More importantly, if your nonstick coating starts to flake away, it's time to toss the pan as it will no longer be useful for cooking. You can reduce the possibility of damage by using the proper utensils with a nonstick pan. Plastic, silicone or wood are preferable to metal, which will mar the coating and render it ineffective.

Another potential problem with nonstick pans is the release of harmful vapors at high heat. Nonstick pans are indispensable for certain dishes, such as eggs or a grilled cheese sandwich, but are horrible for searing meats and other high-heat cooking methods. Since Teflon repels other molecules, the reactions necessary for high-heat searing cannot properly occur. This should be reason enough to avoid high heat nonstick cooking. If you nonetheless accidentally leave an unattended nonstick pan on high flame, the coating will begin to degrade at 660 degrees Fahrenheit.

Potentially harmful cooking oils

A chef frying something

You should not only consider the cooking vessel in organic living but the type of oils you use, too. This raises another controversial topic. Many swear that refined fats such as canola oil are carcinogenic. It seems that most in the medical community consider this a myth. They point to canola oil's benefits as a heart-healthy fat that is preferable to coconut and palm oils which are high in saturated fats. Then again, countless people adore coconut oil in particular for many purposes and extol its healthy properties.

With debates brewing in seemingly all aspects of sauteeing and health, it seems best to tread lightly around pans and incorporate different cooking methods altogether.

Foil, which is just straight-up raw aluminum

Baked potatoes in aluminum foil

If you're concerned about the potential dangers of aluminum, you probably should avoid that big roll of the shiny stuff in your kitchen drawer. With aluminum foil, there is no anodizing to change its surface, and no non-stick coating to protect your food from metallic leaching. When used to cover a dish in for baking, such as a pan of lasagna, for example, there is minimal risk. Storing acidic foods in the refrigerator for extended periods of time may cause more significant problems.

Alternative Cooking Methods to Avoid Metals

One way to avoid the potential problems of aluminum is to use different cooking methods. Instead of sauteeing in a frying pan, and subjecting your food to aluminum molecules or questionable fats, try broiling, steaming or grilling. Just make sure to use stainless steel or glass roasting pans.

When grilling, try to avoid the temptation to blast the fire on high. We all like the crispy char imparted by a grill, but these grill marks might be cancer-causing too. You can reduce the potential health risks by cooking over indirect heat on your grill. This is simple, just preheat one side of your grill and cook the food on the other side. This method is perfect for a slow-cooked barbeque taste that avoids char.

Should You use Anodized Aluminum Cookware or Not?

By all accounts, science says that all aluminum cookware is safe. Hard anodized aluminum cookware adds a chemical-free protective layer. Avoid the pans when making tomato sauce (use an enameled cast iron pot for the sauce as it's much better for slow cooking.) If you're worried about too much aluminum exposure, then pick up stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic cookware. More importantly, be mindful of the materials you use when cooking and how you use them. Care for your pans, use the right one for the job, and take your time. And above all, cook! The health benefits of cooking your own meals will be worth the effort.

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