Cookware Safety

Reviewed and updated by Adair Hoover, Food Safety Extension Agent, Clemson University and Marie Hegler, Food Safety and Nutrition Extension Agent, Clemson University 01/15. Originally reviewed and adapted for use in South Carolina by P.H. Schmutz, HGIC Food Safety Specialist; Joyce Christenbury, Extension Resource Management Specialist; and E.H. Hoyle, Extension Food Safety Specialist, Clemson University. New 05/99. Revised 06/07.

HGIC 3864

Printer Friendly Version (PDF)

There are countless types of cookware. The applications and food safety considerations for common cookware are described below. Knowing these qualities will help you to make choices that are ideal for your cooking purposes. 

Pottery

Pottery is one of the oldest cooking vessels known to man but not all pottery is safe for cooking. Some pottery contains lead and should not be used for cooking, serving or storing food products. Lead is a common element in the glazes and decorations used in pottery. When pottery is not properly treated, lead can leach into food products during cooking, serving and storage. Leached lead does not change the look or taste of foods but can cause lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children and pregnant women as it can cause learning difficulties, behavioral problems and serious illness.

Safety Guidelines:

  • Pottery made in the United States must meet safety guidelines for lead. Look for safety labels that state "Safe for food use."
  • Do not prepare food in pottery made in Mexico or Latin America because there is a risk for high lead levels. Some foreign manufacturers may label their pottery as “lead free”, but the FDA recommends that these pottery products be avoided for food-contact purposes. Also, beware of imported pottery pitchers and mugs as they may also have large amounts of lead.
  • Follow recommendations that state: "Not for food use;" "Plate may poison food;" or "For decorative purposes only." And, keep in mind that warning labels may be erased or painted over.
  • Pottery is unsafe to use if a gray powder on the glaze appears after the pottery has been washed.

For more information about lead, call your county health department. The public health department can check your family for lead poisoning and may be able to test your pottery for lead.

Aluminum Cookware

Aluminum is present in air, water, soil, plants, animals, foods and household products. More than half of all cookware sold today is made of aluminum. Aluminum cookware is often coated with nonstick finishes or treated to harden the surface and make it more scratch-resistant.

Storing highly acidic or salty foods such as tomato sauce, rhubarb or sauerkraut in aluminum pots is not recommended. The acid in these foods may cause more aluminum than usual to enter the food and can cause pitting on the pot's surface.

Anodized Aluminum Cookware

Anodized aluminum has been processed to harden the cookware surface. This process creates a non-stick, scratch-resistant and easy to clean product. An anodized surface prevents reactions with acidic foods, so these pots and pans are top choices for cooking rhubarb and sauces with tomato, wine and lemon juice. Manufacturers claim that during the final stage of anodization the aluminum is sealed to prevent leaching of aluminum into food.

Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron cookware is a classic. It is strong, inexpensive, and an even conductor of heat. Cooking with cast iron provides a source of iron, which is an important nutrient. Cooking foods in unglazed cast iron may double the amount of iron in foods.

Cast-iron cookware requires special handling. To prevent rust damage:

  • Frequently coat the inside of cast iron cookware with unsalted cooking oil
  • Do not scour or wash with strong detergents
  • Dry immediately after rinsing

Copper Cookware

Copper is an excellent conductor of heat and especially good for range-top cooking. Cooks often prefer copper cookware for delicate sauces and foods that require cooking at precisely controlled temperatures.

Copper cookware is usually lined with tin or stainless steel. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions against the use of unlined copper cookware for general cooking. That is because some foods are capable of dissolving metals, and in sufficient quantities, leached copper can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Nonstick Coatings

Cookware made with nonstick coatings is popular and widely available. It is easy to use and generally requires using less oil during cooking. Nonstick coatings will wear away with hard use and particles may chip off so it is important to follow manufactures’ instructions for use and care. Non-scoring or no-scratching utensils and cleaning aids should be used. The FDA approves of the use of this material and finds it safe for food-contact surfaces. The FDA has determined that neither the particles that may chip off nor the fumes given off at high temperatures pose a health hazard.

In summary, nonstick cookware has been used in millions of households around the world for over 40 years, and authoritative agencies around the world have confirmed its safety when used as intended.

Stainless Steel Cookware

Stainless steel is a combination of iron and other metals. It contains chromium, and may contain nickel, molybdenum or titanium, which contribute a hardness that resists damage at high temperatures, scratching and corrosion. Stainless steel is regarded as a durable cookware choice because it will not permanently corrode or tarnish and its hard, non-porous surface is resistant to wear. Stainless steel cookware does not conduct heat evenly; therefore, it is commonly constructed with copper or aluminum bottoms. Manufacturers caution against allowing acidic or salty foods to remain in stainless steel for long periods. Although there are no known health hazards from leaching of the metal, undissolved salt can pit steel surfaces.

Ceramic & Enameled Cookware

Metal cookware is often coated with a ceramic or enamel coating to add color and resistance to stains, scratches and food odors. Domestically- manufactured ceramic and enamel cookware, including slow-cookers and crockpots, is generally considered safe and is monitored by the FDA. The FDA has established maximum levels for leachable lead in ceramic and enamel coatings, and products that exceed these levels are subject to recall or agency enforcement action. In the 1970s excessive levels of potentially toxic cadmium were found in pigments used to color the interior of enamel cookware manufactured overseas. The FDA prohibited importing these products and continues to monitor imports. When purchasing imported enamel cookware, check the list of potentially unsafe products that can be found at: FDA Import Alert 52-08: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/cms_ia/importalert_122.html

Sources:

  1. Blumenthal, Dale (1990). Is That Newfangled Cookware Safe? DHHS Publication No. (FDA) 91-2242.
  2. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service (1998). Is Your Pottery Safe to Use? http://www.uwex.edu/ces/wnep/teach/nfspdfs/Pottery.pdf
  3. FDA Food Code 2009: Annex 3 – Public Health Reasons/Administrative Guidelines –Chapter 4, Equipment, Utensil, and Linens http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/RetailFoodProtection/FoodCode/ucm189212.htm
  4. FDA Import Alert 52-08, 12/17/2014, http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/cms_ia/importalert_122.html

Page maintained by: Home & Garden Information Center


This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.