Stainless steel cookware is versatile, long-lasting, and high performing. It’s used by millions of home cooks and professional chefs across the globe.
But is it safe to use? Are there any health concerns to consider?
This guide breaks down the safety facts about stainless steel cookware. You’ll learn what the latest research reveals and how to minimize any risks.
So if you’re concerned about the safety of stainless steel cookware, keep reading to get the facts.
Use the links below to navigate the guide:
- Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? The Short Answer
- What the Research Says
- A Deep Dive into Stainless Steel Cookware Materials and Construction
- Are Stainless Steel Non-Stick Pans Safe?
- Precautions to Take When Cooking With Stainless Steel Cookware
- Bottom Line: Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and carbon mixed with chromium, nickel, and other elements. Most stainless steel alloys usually contain at least 10.5% chromium and a smaller percentage of nickel.
The chromium and nickel make stainless steel strong, non-reactive, and resistant to rust and corrosion. These elements also give it a brilliant shine.
But is stainless steel cookware safe? Is it non toxic? Are there any health concerns?
The National Sanitation Federation (NSF) asserts that stainless steel is food safe as long as it contains at least 16% chromium. The stainless steel used to make most cookware contains 18% chromium. Since the cooking surface is hard and non-reactive, bacteria won’t linger, and harmful levels of metals won’t mix with the food.
So are there any concerns at all? What about metals leaching into your food?
According to research published on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, trace amounts of chromium and nickel are released in food from stainless steel cookware.
However, the amounts are minimal and unlikely to cause any harm unless you are highly allergic to these elements.
The study tested acidic foods (tomato sauce and lemon marmalade) and liquid solutions to judge the leaching of metals. After testing, the amounts detected were below thresholds for triggering metal allergies.
In another study, published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, nickel content was the top concern. Researchers concluded that low amounts of nickel cause minimal concern.
However, if you have a nickel allergy (which shows up as an itchy rash), you should avoid stainless steel cookware that contains nickel.
As I mentioned, small amounts of chromium and nickel can leach into your food when you cook with stainless steel pots and pans. Just how much depends on the type of stainless steel, length of cooking, and the number of times you’ve cooked in the pan.
Researchers in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University conducted a study on this exact topic.
The study tested the levels of chromium and nickel in food after it was cooked in stainless steel cookware. Researchers tested different grades of stainless steel, cooking times, and cooking cycles. For example, first-time pan use versus the tenth time.
They tested chromium and nickel levels in tomato sauce before and after cooking it in stainless steel. They chose tomato sauce because it’s acidic and more likely to react with metals.
After testing, researchers discovered that a single oral dose of nickel as low as 67 μg (micrograms) could cause a recurrence of allergic contact dermatitis (a type of eczema triggered by contact with a particular substance) for those sensitive to nickel.
Nickel is an essential nutrient, but our bodies only require small amounts. It’s found in some nuts, dried beans, and other plant-based foods.
Chromium is also an essential mineral, but too much of it is not ideal for health. In fact, a single oral dose of 2500 μg of chromium can cause dermatitis if you are sensitive to it.
Overall this study suggests that food cooked in stainless steel cookware will contain higher levels of chromium and nickel than food not cooked in stainless steel.
If you have a known allergy to chromium or nickel, you should consider using another type of cookware that doesn’t contain those metals. For those without allergies, cooking with stainless steel pans poses no risk.
Another study conducted by researchers at The University of Messina in Italy tested the leaching of nickel and chromium in 18/10 (grade 316) stainless steel cookware.
This study used tomato sauce and lemon marmalade to test the effects of leached chromium and nickel into foods from 18/10 stainless steel cookware.
The acidic foods were cooked in used or unused stainless steel pots from different manufacturers for an hour. The foods were heated up by themselves or with added ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). EDTA is a chemical that binds to metal ions.
Researchers also cooked aqueous (containing water) solutions at pH levels of 2.3, 7.7, and 9 for one hour in the same pots as the tomato sauce and lemon marmalade.
After testing the levels of leached metal, researchers concluded that nickel and chromium levels:
- Fluctuated between manufacturers
- Increased with boiling or cooking time
- Were elevated in unused pots at low pH or with EDTA
Unused pans leach more metals into food because they haven’t formed a layer of oxidation (seasoning) yet. The oxidation layer on used pans creates a barrier and prevents the steel from leaching as much.
In all cases, the metal release (leaching) was below known allergy-triggering thresholds.
As a result, using an 18/10 stainless steel pot is considered safe for most people who have nickel or chromium allergies. However, if you have a high sensitivity, you may experience an allergic reaction.
Both studies conclude that you should avoid stainless steel cookware if you have a known allergy to chromium or nickel. If you are not highly sensitive to these elements, there is no cause for concern.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and carbon that contains chromium, nickel, and other additives such as molybdenum. Nickel is a key element in preventing corrosion.
The most common types of stainless steel used to make cookware are 18/10, 18/8, and 18/0.
The first number is the percentage of chromium; the second is the percentage of nickel. Therefore, 18/10 steel includes 10% nickel; 18/8 is made with 8% nickel; 18/0 is a nickel-free alloy.
Overall, the leached nickel from stainless steel cookware won’t affect people unless they have a nickel allergy.
To avoid a reaction, people with a high sensitivity to nickel can use nickel-free stainless steel cookware. Stainless steel cookware made of 18/0, 21/0, and 430 steel are all nickel free.
Up to this point, I’ve focused on the non-reactive stainless steel cooking surface, but I want to also touch on core materials.
If you’re not aware, stainless steel cookware is made of bonded layers. The cooking surface and exterior are stainless steel, but the core is usually aluminum. Copper is sometimes used (ex. All-Clad Copper Core) because of its high heat conductivity.
Core materials are embedded under stainless steel; they have no direct contact with food. Even if the core layer breaks through (which is highly unlikely), copper and aluminum are safe in small amounts.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), aluminum levels in processed foods and foods cooked in aluminum pots are considered safe.
Like aluminum, copper is also found in nature. It’s an essential mineral, but exposure at high levels (a rare occurrence) can cause liver damage or severe stomach discomfort.
In all cases, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper exposure are considered safe at normal levels.
Some stainless steel cookware uses a PTFE-based cooking surface. PTFE (or polytetrafluoroethylene) is a non-stick coating that provides easy food release and clean-up.
While PTFE is safe to use now, it used to be manufactured with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is linked to health issues.
The dangers of PFOA are not fully known. Yet, there is enough evidence to suggest that it can negatively impact health. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a stewardship program to help eliminate PFOA from the PTFE manufacturing process.
By 2013, all major cookware brands complied, and today, PFOA is no longer used to make PTFE non-stick coating.
As long as you use PTFE coatings safely, you won’t have any issues. Avoid heating it over 500°F (or the max temperature stated by the brand), and don’t scratch the surface with metal utensils. Doing so can cause the non-stick coating to flake off and mix into food.
Stainless steel cookware is safe, but you need to follow some recommended precautions to keep it that way.
Here’s a list of dos and don’ts:
- Do adhere to the manufacturer’s oven-safe temperature threshold to prevent your pan from warping. A warped pan is unsteady and can fall off of the stove while you are cooking.
- Do replace severely pitted or damaged cookware. It can expose core materials that can leach into your food. And although small amounts of aluminum or copper don’t pose a risk, it is always safer to use cookware that’s not damaged.
- Do keep your cookware clean. Cooking with heavily-stained pans can cause excessive smoke, irritating your breathing. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent damage and prolong safe usage.
- Do use oven mitts to handle stainless steel cookware when it’s hot and use two hands when moving full pots or pans.
- Do make sure handles are secure before moving a pot or pan.
- Don’t place hot stainless steel pans on countertops. Even hard materials like quartz can get damaged by high heat. Conversely, the pan could warp from thermal shock if the countertop is cold.
- Don’t store food in stainless steel pots and pans, especially for long periods. Research shows that the longer the food is in direct contact with stainless steel, the more metals leach into it.
- Don’t heat stainless steel cookware with non-stick coating above 500°F or the manufacturer’s maximum temperature (some can only handle 350°F or less). It will cause the non-stick coating to degrade and release harmful gasses.
- Don’t drop heavy stainless steel cookware on glass stovetops or drag them across the surface. It can damage the cooktop.
Now that you’ve learned more about stainless steel cookware, you have the information you need to use it safely.
Let’s quickly recap the safety concerns and address each one.
Can chromium or nickel leach into my food?
Studies prove that small amounts of chromium and nickel can leach into food when cooking with stainless steel pots and pans. While the amount depends on what you cook (acidic versus non-acidic foods), the length of cooking time, a used or unused pan, and other factors, no levels of chromium or nickel were considered dangerous for most people.
However, if you have an allergy or high sensitivity to chromium or nickel, it is in your best interest to choose cookware free of both elements.
Can aluminum or copper leach into my food?
For this to happen, core layers of stainless steel cookware must be exposed, which can occur with severe pitting. In those cases, you should replace the pan. However, studies show that the amounts leached into food are minimal. Small amounts are safe to consume.
Can using stainless steel pans make me sick?
If you have an allergy to chromium or nickel, you can experience an itchy rash known as contact dermatitis. You can also experience stomach discomfort if exposed to high amounts of nickel daily. However, that’s unlikely to happen from using stainless steel cookware under normal circumstances.
Are there nickel-free stainless steel cookware options?
Are stainless steel non-stick pans safe?
Yes, as long as you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on maximum oven temperature. Exceeding the temperature rating can cause the non-stick coating to break down and release harmful fumes. Also, avoid scratching the surface by using abrasive kitchen tools or cleansers.
Bottom line — Yes, stainless steel cookware is safe. It’s one of the most popular cookware materials, and it has been used without issues for decades. The amount of nickel that gets into the food you eat is minimal and not harmful. That said, if you have a nickel allergy, you’ll want to find a nickel-free option or choose another type of cookware.
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