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Do Nonstick Pans and Microwavable Plastics Cause Cancer?

DrSugar on Cancer Myths: Nonstick Pans and Microwaving Plastic

DrSugar is in the house! This week she's debunking a couple of cancer myths centered in the kitchen.

Based on a few questions we have received, I will be discussing two popular myths about cancer risks in the kitchen, the first regarding cooking with nonstick pans and, the second, microwaving plastic containers. I must admit, doing the research for this week’s column was a real eye-opener for me and hopefully the findings will be informative for you! To learn more about these cancer "myths," keep reading!

Nonstick pans were created to help ease the cooking and clean-up process and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, have revolutionized America's cooking habits by letting consumers cook with much less grease and oil. Surprisingly, the myth that there is an increased risk associated with cooking with nonstick pans is true. But don't throw out all your nonstick pots and pans just yet. Extensive research done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that nonstick pans are acceptable for use in a conventional kitchen as long as certain protocols are followed while cooking with them. The chemical of concern in nonstick pans is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is the substance used to make the surface of nonstick cookware. In animal studies, high levels of PFOA (also found in stain-resistant carpets, pizza boxes, fast-food containers, and microwave popcorn bags) have been linked to cancer, low birth weight, and other health problems. Human studies are limited, but it's reported that a good majority of Americans have small amounts of PFOA in their bloodstreams.

Dupont, a major nonstick pan producing company, has recommendations for safe cooking practices based upon the research and recommendations of the FDA. The recommended maximum use temperature for nonstick pans is 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The company recommends using low to medium-high heat and to never preheat your cookware on high heat. It also recommends turning on an exhaust fan or opening a window when cooking to ventilate your kitchen and reduce your possible intake of the PFOA fumes. They report if a nonstick pan is heated over 660° F, the nonstick coating may begin to deteriorate and possibly release PFOA and other toxic gases. Also, toss out any nonstick pan if the surface degrades with scratching or flaking.

Now, onto the "cancer caused by microwaving plastic" myth. Here's the funny thing — if the dish or container is labeled as microwave-safe, then according to the Mayo Clinic, it actually is. However, if you use a container that is not labeled microwave-safe, the plastic could melt and potentially leak chemicals into your food. The Harvard Medical School explains that the FDA has strict regulations on determining whether a container is microwave-safe, so if it is labeled as such, it has undergone rigorous testing to obtain approval. What they also state is that a container that is not labeled as microwave-safe does not necessarily mean it will cause you harm; it has just not been determined by the FDA to be safe. Harvard Medical School reports that most takeout containers, water bottles, and plastic tubs or jars that hold condiments are not microwave-safe. If you are concerned about plastic containers or wraps, then you should transfer the food to glass or ceramic containers labeled as safe for the microwave.

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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