More attention is being paid to what's inside the pots and pans, casseroles and trays all landing on the table. Over the last couple decades, consciousness has increased about how the glazing on your bowl may have lead, the flaking coating in your frying pan could cause illness, and all kinds of other speculation about carcinogens and beyond. If you've been wondering about ceramic cookware health hazards, there are some important facts to know.
Defined: Ceramic and Cookware
"Cookware" is typically anything food is cooked, which could mean actual ceramic-based dishes in the form of casseroles, trays and baking pots, lidded or otherwise. But there is also "ceramic-coated" cookware, which comes in the form of pots, pans and frying pans that have become so popular in the last five years.
As for ceramic, it's essentially a clay hardened by fire, and people have been cooking with it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It can be one of the safest materials to eat off, but when left untreated, ceramic will become stained or discolored, which is why ceramic gets glazed, usually. That glaze is often at issue and can contain cadmium or lead, among other things. And sometimes, the clay sourced for the ceramics can be problematic, too.
How is Cookware "Dangerous"?
When cooking, depending on your oven or stove, cookware can reach temperatures of over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. For some cookware, like the non-stick variety, these high temperatures cause chemicals to leach out into the foods. These include things like cadmium and lead, which are phased out in the United States, but are still get used in some other places.
Cookware gets banged around, subjected to high heat, stirred, shaken and scraped. As that happens, its surface — whether it's a non-stick finish, enameled cast iron or even a glazed ceramic tajine from Morocco — can become scratched or chipped. For metal, this can mean itty-bitty metal particulate gets into your food. With that chipped ceramic pan, for instance, those scratches or chips mean you may get glazing or even flakes of ceramic in your food, which can range from not dangerous to highly toxic, depending where it's from and the volume of leaching.
Whether it's the glazing that's the problem or it's the components of the ceramics itself, the big fear with suspect cookware is it will leach toxicity into the food. And some foods, like the beloved tomato or anything citrus, have increased acidity that escalate this reaction.
If you look at the numbers, it feels like having a meal with these dishes isn't particularly dangerous, but the bigger concern is their cumulative effect — that is, using those dishes meal after meal, day after day. Even just one meal a day at home on these dishes would mean over 365 exposures annually, and those tiny exposures can add up.
Natural, but Dangerous
In the 1980s, a harrowing story came out about a Seattle couple Don and Fran, two travelers who collected some earthenware and ceramic mugs from a family in Italy that made them for seven generations. These mugs became their favorite for morning coffees, used nearly daily for at least one cup of joe.
Over the next three years, the couple became nearly fatally lead-poisoned and underwent extensive testing to find the source of the poison. The cause made headlines around the world, because no one, least of all the couple, could have imagined those cups would be the source of the poisoning that nearly killed them. While they drank their morning coffee in under an hour, an FDA-administered test found that after 24 hours, acidic coffee meant over 400 times the accepted levels of lead would leach out of the mugs.
Point of Origin: Safety Standards
Where's it from? If a product has come from, say, Japan, it's likely safe because they have stringent laws. But other spots may have less regulation and oversight. Many regions in Europe and Asia have artisans that still use lead and other chemicals in their processes.
So, why are they allowed to sell dishes made with unsafe materials? Because they sell them as décor items rather than food vessels, which means that beautiful pot isn't meant to be cooked with, just ogled. Perhaps a merchant didn't use proper "not for food" labeling. Or perhaps over time, a "not for cooking" label wore off. Either way, it's one of the risks taken when buying used ceramics in vintage shops and such.
If you're unsure of the origin or intended us for ceramic dishes, don't use them for hot food. Use them as a fruit bowl or for party nuts, or for those pinecones you love to display in the autumn. But that's it.
Using Ceramic Safely
Following manufacturer's care suggestions is always recommended, but what if it's not marked? In general, avoid using ceramic cookware right on stove elements or flames. Don't use anything but non-scratch scrubbies or cloths, so you don't damage glazing.
If your ceramic shows any cracks or chips, it's time to stop using it. Beyond how you could consume flakes or chips, there's also bacteria that can reside inside the cracks.
Unfortunately, ceramic doesn't recycle, but chipped or cracked ceramic looks fab in a garden or housing a little pot of succulents on your porch. You can also strategically break ceramics and use the shards in creating mosaic patterns on everything from tabletops to mirror frames.
Ceramic-Coated vs. Ceramic Cookware
Ceramic-coated cookware is the recent trend in pots and pans. These are metal pans coated with ceramic, and they're non-stick. The coatings are generally considered safe and are made using silicon and other inorganic compounds that do not contain carbon. Depending on the brand, they can be oven-safe up to 842 Fahrenheit — which is nearly 400 degrees higher than Teflon — without emitting fumes or toxins.
One consideration is that ceramic-coated cookware should never be used in extremes back-to-back. So, don't take a pan out of the fridge and put it on a hot burner or in a hot oven, because otherwise, you may crack the coating. But even proper care of a ceramic-coated pan is likely to get less longevity than it would in other non-stick coatings. Some studies show Teflon and the like could last six times as long.
Finally, there are some companies making skillets and Dutch ovens out of 100 percent pure ceramics, with no metals. These products are not only safe, but also quality cookware when made well. America's Xtrema is one such brand that FDA-approved and backed by a decade-long warranty, not to mention landing high ratings ceramic cookware reviews. Emile Henry is a popular French brand known for everything from their award-winning tagine to their French onion soup pots. So, when looking at ceramic cookware and its healthfulness versus the dangers, know that "ceramic cookware" is a big, big category, and its best-made, highest-quality products tend to be among the safest of any cookware you'll use.