We go to great lengths to source the best ingredients we can — and we’re sure you do you. But cooking with quality ingredients is only one step in the journey to a safe, nourishing kitchen. Cookware, cleaners, and even cutting boards are also important items to scrutinize. Certain metals and plastics can leach their contents out into carefully sourced and prepared ingredients, and that’s the last thing we want to do! We know that you care as much as we do about reducing the toxin load in each and every meal, and we want to help everyone achieve that goal.
We know that it can be overwhelming to address every kitchen item at once, so we’ve broken down our checklist into four main categories. Tackle them as slowly or as quickly as you’re able. Replacing even one pot is a great first step to a cleaner kitchen.
DETOX YOUR KITCHEN SUPPLIES
Cookware: Look for the least reactive cookware you can find. We use stainless steel in our kitchen, but well-seasoned cast iron is also a great choice. Avoid aluminum and non-stick pans, as they are apt to leach metals and/or gnarly chemicals into your food and kitchen air.
Plastics: We’re striving to eliminate all traces of plastics in our kitchen, but we recognize that this is a huge challenge in today’s plastic-filled world. There are some plastics that are safer than others; see this chart to learn more. No matter the type of plastic, however, make sure to keep them out of the heat (dishwashers are a major culprit!) and away from acidic foods.
Cutting boards: You can probably guess that we don’t recommend plastic cutting boards, but you may not know that we are picky about our wood boards as well. Many common wood cutting boards come with their share of issues as well — they may be glued together with formaldehyde-based glues or they might be seasoned with petroleum-based mineral oil. There are woodworkers out there making great cutting board options, but we choose to make our own single-piece boards in house. We season them with a mixture of beeswax and coconut oil.
Cleaners: Skip the bleach and antibacterial soaps, and stick with non-toxic cleaners.Even natural cleaners can contain vague “fragrances.” Since it is impossible to know what exactly is in these fragrances, it is best to avoid scented products. We use Tropical Traditions’ line of products for our countertops and linens, which you can order online. The Environmental Working Group also has an easy-to-use database of common cleaning brands, complete with ingredient lists and safety ratings. Check there before heading to the store.
NERD OUT ON KITCHEN SUPPLIES
Steel-up your cookware
Swapping out toxic cookware for cleaner options is one of the easiest (and most fun) steps you can take to improve the quality of your kitchen. At Mission: Heirloom, we cook using stainless steel pots, pans, and baking sheets. They’re made from a mixture of metals that combine together to make an inert and stable pan.
The only downside to stainless steel is that it is a poor heat conductor on its own. To fix the problem, stainless cookware is often made with a copper or aluminum-filled plate attached to the underside of the pot. (These metals never touch the food, as they are completely surrounded by stainless steel.) When this plate is fully incorporated into the base and outer sides of the pan, it is considered “fully clad.” All-Clad pans are a popular choice of fully-clad stainless steel pans. According to food scientist Harold McGee, these types of pans are “the closest thing we have to the ideal chemically inert but fully responsive pan.” They’re expensive, but a great, toxin-free choice!
While we can’t use them in our kitchen because of their weight, cast-iron pans, in both their seasoned and enameled state, are another fantastic choice for home kitchens. (They’re also generally much cheaper than stainless, and they will last a lifetime or two if properly cared for. Plus, cast iron is a great heirloom piece!) Stainless steel-lined copper is also an excellent material for pots and pans, but it tends to be very pricey! If you want to invest, copper is a great place to start. Avoid (or get rid of) aluminum pots and pans in addition to Teflon and any other non-stick cookware you have.
Aluminum is a highly reactive material and it doesn’t belong near your food! Cooks Illustrated Magazine ran a test to see which common cookware items were most subject to chemical leaching when used to make tomato sauce. They found that unseasoned cast iron leached the highest amount of metal into the sauce (108 mg/kg), followed by aluminum (14.3 mg/kg, seasoned cast iron (around 4 mg/kg), and finally stainless steel (less than 1 mg/kg). Keep in mind that unseasoned cast iron is rarely used in the kitchen, so its levels can be disregarded. Iron is also rarely toxic to humans; in fact, most of us could use a little more iron in our diets! Aluminum, on the other hand, has been associated with neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and shouldn’t be consumed at all. Any amount of aluminum in our food is too much! We recommend going so far as to toss out any aluminum foil or disposable pans you have around the house. These can leach too!
Non-stick pots and pans are even more problematic. These were first developed by DuPont in the 1950s. They were coated in a chemical polymer called Teflon, and that name has remained synonymous with non-stick ever since. When brand new and used at low temperatures, non-stick pans serve their purpose, providing a slick, smooth cooking surface that quickly releases food without the use of oil or fat. However, all non-stick pans are susceptible to scratching, which reveals the aluminum pan below and (worse) makes it easy for bits of the non-stick chemical to transfer to food. At high cooking temperatures (above 500 degrees), the non-stick coating decomposes into noxious and toxic gases. DuPont even admitted that these fumes can kill small birds and can a cause flu-like illness called polymer fume fever in humans. Depending on the weight of the pan in question, it can reach these dangerous temperatures in as little as 3 minutes. The lighter weight the pan, the quicker it will heat up. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a likely carcinogen, is another chemical that is associated with the production of non-stick pans. It is best to avoid the risk and eliminate non-stick pans from your kitchen repertoire.
Instead of using non-stick pans, practice seasoning your cast iron skillet. Over time, its surface will become almost as nonstick as the chemical-coated pans. To season cast iron, you simply need to coat the surface with a very thin layer of a healthy oil or fat and heat it in a low oven for several hours. Repeat the process several times until the oil forms a solid layer on the outside of the pan. Seasoning works because the oil penetrates the pores and fissures in the metal to seal it from the attack of air and water. In addition, the combination of heat, metal, and air oxidizes the fatty acids chains in the fat, encouraging them to bond together into a dense, hard layer.
We also encourage you to not be afraid of cleaning up bits of stuck food from your stainless steel skillets! It is easy to get the pans sparkling clean by heating up water in the pan and rubbing a lemon half over the stuck food.
We’ve put together a quick guide to cookware. Take a look here and print it out for reference.
De-plasticize your storage
At Mission: Heirloom, we’re striving to be a plastic-free facility, but we recognize how prevalent plastics are in our everyday lives. It often feels like an impossible task to completely eliminate plastics from the kitchen, and we recognize that we still reach for a zipper lock bag every once in awhile. There are a few rules you can follow while you transition to a plastic-free lifestyle:
- Never heat plastics: the leaching of plastic-based chemicals is accelerated via heat. Keep them far away from the sun, the stove, and the dishwasher.
- Don’t use plastic to store acidic foods: Like heat, acids accelerate chemical leaching. Keep your tomato sauce and vinaigrettes in glass!
- Pay attention to the recycling symbol: Most plastics come embedded with a recycling symbol and number. Plastics with the numbers 2, 4, and 5 are generally safe to use (following the above rules), and plastics with a number 1 are safe as long as they are not made from recycled plastic and are only used once. See our plastics chart for more details.
- Avoid the big three: BPA, Phthalate, and Polystyrene
The big three: BPA, Phthalates, and Polystyrene
BPA (bisphenol A) is a carbon-based synthetic compound frequently found in plastics and in the epoxy resins used to line metal cans. While it is not a plastic itself, BPA is a common ingredient in different types of plastic. Plastic numbers 1 through 6 are unlikely to contain BPA, while type 7 plastics (a miscellaneous catch-all category) often do. Occasionally, flexible PVC (type 3) can contain BPA as well.
BPA is problematic because it is an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors behave like hormones in the body, binding, activating, and blocking hormone receptors in cells. BPA specifically mimics estrogen, so it is often considered to be more harmful to women than men. However, since both women and men have at least some amount of estrogen in their bodies, it is important that both avoid BPA-containing products. The harm associated with BPA is not related to immediate acute toxicity; rather, the concern is based on most Americans’ continuous low-level exposure. This level of exposure has been associated with obesity, neurological effects, impaired thyroid function, and it could increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
BPA is especially likely to leach from plastics and epoxies when subjected to harsh detergents, highly acidic foods, or high temperature liquids. The EPA has set a “safe exposure” limit of 50 µg/kg/day, but it is hard to know how much BPA has leached out of different products. According to a 2009 study, there were some cans (even those that claimed not to contain BPA) that had a content level higher than the safe exposure limit.
Because of consumer concern regarding BPA, many manufacturers have started producing BPA-free versions of their products. However, it is unknown whether BPA substitutes like BPS are actually any safer to use. In fact, a 2011 study discovered many different endocrine disruptors in BPA-free plastics.
Phthalate is a catch-all name for different types of phthalic acid used as plasticizers. Plasticizers are substances commonly added to plastics in order to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. In the kitchen, phthalates are most often found in number 3 (PVC) plastics, which include food wraps, cooking oil bottles, and plumbing pipes. However, phthalates are widely used in many different applications, from shower curtains and the glue used to make particle board to even personal care products like moisturizers.
The biggest problem with phthalates is that they do not chemically bind to plastics. Instead, they are physically bound to the plastic structure and are therefore easily released into the environment. We are exposed to phthalates through both direct use and via chemical leaching into the environment, food, or atmosphere.
Phthalates are suspected to be endocrine disruptors just like BPA, and long-term low-level exposure to these substances can lead to an increased risk for breast cancer, obesity, liver and testes damage, allergies, diabetes, low birth weight, and even ADHD.
Polystyrene (plastic #6) is most frequently known as Styrofoam, but it is found in far more objects than packing peanuts. It is a synthetic polymer that can be used in a rigid or foamed form. Polystyrene is used in protective packaging (packing peanuts, CD, DVD cases), clamshell containers, lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, disposable cutlery, styrofoam, and napalm-B.
Unlike BPA and phthalate-containing plastics, polystyrene is chemically inert and can only be broken down by dissolving it in powerful chemical solvents. Because of this property, however, polystyrene takes a very, very long time to biodegrade. It is one of the largest sources of litter across the globe. In addition, extruded polystyrene is made by using hydrofluorocarbons, which have global warming potentials of around 1000-1300 times that of carbon dioxide.
Recycled plastic problems
Recycled plastics sound like a great idea because they prevent additional plastics from entering the landfill. But they’re not particularly safe for us to use. Why? Plastics must be subjected to heat in order to make them into a new product. Heat increases the likelihood that any unsavory chemicals in the plastic could leach out into the environment and your food. In addition, the recycling process is not always perfect, and safe plastics can be cross-contaminated with less-safe compounds.
Take a look at the different types of plastics in more detail on our plastic breakdown chart.
Unglue your cutting boards
Cutting boards are an important part of any cook’s kitchen, but they can be tricky. At Mission: Heirloom, we use homemade cutting boards made from a single piece of wood. Why homemade? We wanted to make sure that we were working on boards that are 100% free of formaldehyde-based wood glue, mineral oil, and antibacterial triclosan. These three ingredients aren’t always found in cutting boards, but they are often not disclosed.
There are many reasons to avoid these three ingredients:
|formaldehyde-based wood glue||Found in urea-formaldehyde resin or phenol formaldehyde resin, and most frequently used to make imported bamboo cutting boards. If not cured properly, these glues can release formaldehyde, which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; and severe allergic reactions.|
|mineral oils||They consist of a variety of colorless, odorless, light oils made from a non-vegetable source, most often a by-product of petroleum manufacturing. Untreated or mildly treated mineral oils have been classified by the World Health Organization as highly carcinogenic to humans. Highly refined oils (most often used in cutting board care) are are not suspected to be carcinogenic, but available information is not sufficient to classify them as harmless. There is evidence that mineral oil can impede the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A (and precursors), D, E, K and essential fatty acids. Food grade mineral oil is not approved in food products in the European Union, and incidental amounts in foods are carefully regulated. We should be doing the same.|
|triclosan||This chemical is an antibacterial and antifungal agent often used in plastic cutting boards and other plastic kitchen utensils, in addition to soaps, detergents, and toys. Frequent use can lead to: allergies, hay fever, lowered thyroid hormones and testosterone, and impaired cardiac contraction/function. In addition, its use may lead to the production of harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are also environmental concerns (it is toxic to aquatic bacteria), and it produces toxic byproducts when it reacts with chlorine in tap water.|
Clean up your cleaners
So-called natural cleaners are a common sight in stores today. Despite the fact that many of them are not, in fact, much better than the less-natural cleaners they’ve replaced, this change in products demonstrates a genuine shift in the ways in which we think about cleaning. That’s a good thing!
We’re very picky about the cleaning supplies we use in our kitchen and to wash our linens—we don’t want there to be any chance that a rogue chemical makes it way into your meal. We work with a company called Ecologic Solutions to clean our pots, pans, and dishes, and use Tropical Traditions products for just about everything else. While Ecologic Solutions works primarily with businesses, Tropical Traditions is available for home use.
The Environmental Working Group has a great online guide for other home cleaners complete with strict standards and clear, color-coded ratings. Check their site before purchasing your next all-purpose spray. You can also look for specific ingredients on labels. Vague descriptors like “fragrance” and “color” are big no-nos, but you should also keep an eye out for products containing antibacterial compounds, ammonia, 2-butoxyethanol, chlorine bleach, citrus and pine oils, benzalkonium chloride, ingredients with names including “-monium chloride” or triclosan, and “active ingredients” such as ADBAC. Homemade options also work well, and most cleaners can be made using white vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, fragrance-free soap, and washing soda.
When it comes to our towels and aprons, we turn to our own personal washing machines. While there are plenty of professional linen services in the Bay Area, every single one that we contacted uses bleach in their washing process. Common household bleach is problematic because it is a highly corrosive substance that contains the halogen chlorine. Bleach is highly reactive; when it mixes with other common cleaners like ammonia, it releases highly poisonous chloramine gas. Chlorine is also chemically related to iodine; if it is ingested or absorbed, it can compete with the thyroid’s absorption of this essential trace element.
Instead we use an oxygen-based cleaner to keep our whites sparkling clean. This cleaner is made with sodium percarbonate. It is safe to use at all temperatures and it produces no harmful by-products (only soda ash). When sodium percarbonate is added to water, oxygen bubbles are released, which break the bond between the surface of the fabric and any stains, dirt, or odor.
We’re also talking with Ecologic Solutions about installing a new cleaning and sanitizing system that uses regular tap water and salt to produce both dish soap and sanitizer. Sound crazy? It actually works! The machine combines the salt and the water in an electrolyzing chamber, which adds an electrical current to split the salty brine into hypochlorous acid (the sanitizer) and sodium hydroxide (the detergent), both of which are non-toxic and, surprisingly, 99.9% water. The coolest part about his system is that, once the equipment is installed, there is no need to purchase bottles and tubs of cleaners and sanitizers — it is 100% zero waste!