Years ago, Teflon was all the rage. Now, the chemical originally used to make it has been banned. Is nonstick silicone cookware really safer or just another time bomb waiting to explode?
A Nutrition Diva listener writes:
Non-stick silicone cookware, especially for baking, seems really useful. But is it safe? Also, I would like to stop using my plastic steamer that I rely on for steaming vegetables in the microwave. What type of container do you suggest?
What is silicone made from?
Silicone is a type of synthetic rubber made from silicon, a naturally occurring element that’s abundant in rock and sand. Silicon (or silica) is used to make mortar, glass, cement, bricks, and concrete.
Silicon is also used as a semiconductor in computers and cellphones. That's why the Santa Clara Valley, near San Francisco, California, is often referred to as Silicon Valley.
Silicone is not exactly new to kitchens; your grandmother probably used silicone-based rubber spatulas.
Silicon can also be modified or polymerized into a rubbery material called silicone. Silicone is not exactly new to kitchens; your grandmother probably used silicone-based rubber spatulas. But more recently it’s been used to make nonstick cake and muffin pans, baking mats or liners, and a whole range of other cooking gear.
Silicone cookware has several advantages. It’s lightweight, flexible, easy to clean, stain-resistant, and nothing sticks to it. You can put it in the freezer, dishwasher, microwave, or oven. And it comes in all kinds of fun bright colors. But is it too good to be true?
Is Silicone another Teflon?
Many of you have written to me lately about the movie Dark Waters, a legal thriller in the tradition of Erin Brockovich. It tells the story of PFOA, a chemical originally used in Teflon, the nonstick coating created by the chemical company Dupont in the 1940s and widely used in nonstick cookware.
It was eventually revealed that this supposedly safe compound can accumulate in the tissues of humans and other animals and potentially lead to serious health problems. PFOA was implicated in multiple cases of cancer and other serious health problems. Dupont eventually settled a class-action suit for $671 million.
PFOA is no longer used in Teflon. And it’s important to note that the health problems attributed to PFOA were not linked to the use of nonstick cookware.
PFOA is no longer used in Teflon. And it’s important to note that the health problems attributed to PFOA were not linked to the use of nonstick cookware. Rather, it was due to industrial dumping of this chemical into landfills and water supplies, which exposed local residents to large amounts of the chemical.
Even though PFOA is no longer used in the US, it persists in the environment. And in human tissues. And it’s been replaced by similar chemicals that some fear may pose similar risks. Given the lax regulation of industrial chemicals in the US (so dramatically illustrated in Dark Waters), it’s not an unreasonable concern.
All of which is to say that I can understand why people feel wary about silicone. Is this just another time bomb that has not yet exploded?
Silicon is a very inert, nonreactive substance. It’s very stable, even at high heats.
But I think I can set your minds at ease. Silicon is a very inert, nonreactive substance. It’s very stable, even at high heats. There appear to be no reports or concerns from industry watchdogs, environmental groups, or citizen activists about silicon leaching, off-gassing, or in any way interacting with foods.
Pros and cons of silicone cookware
Silicone does have some practical drawbacks. Although it’s lightweight and flexible, it’s also pretty flimsy. Cake pans and muffin tins full of batter can be a little tricky to handle. Unlike a rigid pan, you can’t just pick it up by the edge because unless it’s been reinforced by another material, the pan will just bend in the middle and dump the contents. Been there, done that.
Silicone cookware also can’t stand up to open flames, so it won’t replace your nonstick skillet or other stovetop cookware.
If you have a nonstick pan that you love, you don’t necessarily need to throw it away, as long as it’s in good condition. Although there are lingering concerns in some corners about the chemicals used to make modern non-stick cookware, these also relate to industrial and environmental exposure and not to the use of the cookware.
Take care not to accidentally overheat your non-stick cookware as this can release fumes that can make you sick (and can be lethal to pet birds). Nonstick pans that are chipped, peeling, or flaking should be discarded. But once they are in that condition, they’re not very nonstick anymore anyway.
RELATED: Are Nonstick Pans Safe?
What are the safest pans?
Personally, I get along just fine without nonstick cookware. Cast iron, stainless steel, and anodized aluminum are all durable, safe, nonreactive materials that make excellent skillets.
With any of these options, you may have to use a little oil (or cooking spray) or clean a pan once in a while. But you don’t have to worry about the material breaking down or leaching into the air or into your food. (And contrary to some claims on the internet, using aluminum cookware does not pose an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.)
What's the best cookware for microwaves?
Finally, my listener also asked about a better option to replace her plastic microwave steamer.
I do not recommend using even “microwave-safe” plastic containers, bags, or films in the microwave.
Although microwaving is very safe and can actually preserve more nutrients in foods than other types of cooking, I do not recommend using even “microwave-safe” plastic containers, bags, or films in the microwave. Although these materials stay cool in the microwave, when they come into contact with hot food, it is possible for chemicals to leach into the food.
Glass containers are perfectly safe for microwaving. But this is another excellent use for silicone. My favorite microwave steamer is a silicone steamer basket made by Lekue.