Pros and cons of stainless steel cookware for health: should you use it?

Pros and cons of stainless steel cookware for health

I don’t use aluminum, or other Teflon coated non-stick cooker. As it is a process of day to day use, the choice of cookware needs special attention. Metal particle from soft metal like aluminum cookware leashes to foods. Aluminum identified as a neurotoxin and may link with neurodegenerative diseases. Also, researchers found an increased level of aluminum particles in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients. (1) I also don’t use Teflon coated non-stick cookware. One type of cookware that has its place in my kitchen is stainless steel cookware. Although stainless is comparatively stable or inert, there are still some possible concerns with it. Therefore here we are going to explore the Pros and cons of stainless steel cookware for health and the possible concern of using. We also go through what we should know before buying stainless steel cookware.

Why don’t I use Teflon coated non-stick cookware?

Although highly toxic PFOA Teflon coating in non-stick cookware is going discontinued presently, there is still a concern of toxicity present PTFE Teflon coated non-stick cookware. (2) Although we lack vigorous human study, PTFE degradation had shown to cause several toxicities like pulmonary inflammation, hemorrhage, edema and some other in animals. (3) And coatings slowly come out with regular use. Therefore due to such possible concern, I don’t use Teflon coated non-stick cookware.

Pros and cons of stainless steel cookware for health

One type of cooking material I use in my home is the stainless steel cookware. But it is not entirely free from health-related issues. Stainless steel has many different usages, including industrial use, has different types of formulation. Our concern here is only food-grade stainless steel used in cookware.

Pros of stainless steel cookware

Some advantages of stainless steel cookware include as:

  • Durability
  • Easy to clean as well as low in maintenance
  • Stainless steel is relatively inert and doesn’t leach into foods in comparison to aluminum and copper and less reactive to acidic foods
  • Value for money, reasonably priced
  • Looks good

Materials used in stainless steel cookware

Although there are many formulations of stainless steel for different usage, other materials frequently used with steel alloy are chromium, nickel, and molybdenum. Stainless steel becomes corrosion resistance with an increased amount of chromium. Nickel also increases resistance to corrosion as well as gives a shinning effect. Nickel offers more weldable and non-magnetic properties to steel alloy. The addition of molybdenum provides resistance against corrosion and pitting effect. (4, 5) However, all stainless steel cookware doesn’t contain molybdenum.  

Health concerns of chromium and nickels in stainless steel cookware

Although stainless steel is relatively inert in comparison to aluminum and copper, it can still leach nickel and chromium into foods in low quantities. You need a trace amount of chromium for numbers of functions of the body but don’t need nickel. Adequate intake of chromium varies from 20 mcg to 35 mcg among adolescents, females, and adults. Although it has a few adverse effects with excessive intake, a tolerable upper intake level has not been established for it. (6)

Trace metal nickel occurs naturally in soils, water, plants, and animals. In 2001, the Tolerable Upper Intake limit of nickel was reduced to 1,000 μg per day. Although a small amount of nickel may not cause poison, some people have an allergic reaction when having exposure to nickel. Studies indicate even a low dose as 67mcg flare up eczema or lead to dermatitis in individuals sensitive to nickel. Similarly, a single oral dose of 2500 mcg of chromium can cause skin problems like dermatitis in sensitized individuals. And the metal leaching increases with the cooking of food that contains acidic components like tomato or lemon. (7) On the other hand, tomato is a very healthy food.

What to look at before buying stainless steel cookware?

The chromium and nickel percentages vary with grade of stainless steel cookware. In commercial cookware, you will find the grade of stainless steel mentioned as 18/10, 18/8, 18/0 like that. The first number indicates the percentage of chromium and the second number indicates the percentage of nickel. If you have nickel allergies your preference will be lower the second number. You also see some manufacture mentioned their stainless steel grade as 304, 316 like that.  Stainless steel grade 304 contains approximately 18–20% chromium by weight, and 8–12% nickel. In commercial cookware, it may be similar to grade 18/8. On the other hand grade, 316 contains a slightly higher percentage of nickel, approximately 16–18% chromium, and 10–14% nickel. Therefore low nickel content is preferable to nickel allergic people.

However, it is not only the mass of nickel with the cookware that contribute to nickel leach. For example a chromium oxide layer on the surface likely to contribute to the prevention of metal leaching to foods. Higher cooking temperature, longer cooking time, etc also contribute to higher metal leaching. It also depends on the surface of the cookware with which foods come in contact. (7)

You will see one more type of food-grade stainless steel like 430 grade. This type of stainless steel does not contain nickel or molybdenum. It offers good corrosion resistance in mildly corrosive environments and good resistance to oxidation at higher temperatures. It is a ferritic type. (8)

Pros and cons of stainless steel cookware for health and what to look before buying

Weight and materials used in cookware

Stainless steel is not a very good conductor of heat. For that reason, some manufacturers use aluminum or copper as core material or cladding for better heat conductivity and distribution. They usually mention it as tri-ply with aluminum or copper core. Aluminum needs more thickness than copper for similar heat distribution. That makes copper core stainless steel cookware lighter than the aluminum core. In general, you may consider weight or heavier, the cookware as a better one than the lighter one for the case of the same materials used.

Now the questions are how much metals leach in cooking with stainless steel cookware?

In toxicological studies published in the J Agric Food Chem., researchers studied nickel and chromium into foods during cooking with 304, 316-grade stainless steel. From their findings, leaches of nickel cooked with an acidic environment like tomato are within the tolerable intake limit for daily consumption of normal people. However, the amount exceeds if you have nickel allergy.

One the other hand, tomato cooked with 316-grade stainless steel saucepan chromium contained 67.5 mcg of Cr per serving. That is above the adequate intake level but below Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD) 2500 mcg/day. Again remember acidic foods like tomato increases metal leachings.

Source: Kristin L. Kamerud, Kevin A. Hobbie, and Kim A. Anderson, Stainless Steel Leaches Nickel and Chromium into Foods During Cooking, J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Oct 2; 61(39): 9495–9501,

Another study on 18/10 or grade 316 stainless steel, cooked with tomato and lemon concluded under common conditions, the use of 18/10 stainless steel pots is considered to be safe for the majority of nickel-allergic and/or chromium-allergic people. However, they also warn that the total amount of nickel released from cookware may exceed the individual threshold for triggering allergy, potentially causing problems for highly sensitive individuals. (9)

How to avoid food sticky-ness with stainless steel cookware

Stainless steel cookware is not a completely non-stick type. You need to preheat cookware, use an adequate amount of oil and low heat cooking to avoid food stuck to cookware.

Bottom line:

Although we have limited health data with the use of stainless steel cookware, from present data it appears as easy to use, durable and safer option than aluminum and similar non-stick cookware. If you are allergic to nickel like dermatitis, your option can be nickel-free or low nickel numbers, better nickel free. Overall it appears as stainless steel cookware is no very suitable for cooking acidic food like a tomato, at least for cooking regularly acidic foods, as acid increases metal leaching. And finally to cook food in a healthier way we need a combination of cooking material for different foods and cooking methods.

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Disclaimer: Information provided here are generalized information for 
educational purpose only,  not intended to provide one to one health 
consultation or replace practice of a qualified practitioner. Different 
people may have different health condition and may have different reaction 
to the same food. Hence it has been advised to consult with health care 
provider before application of any of above information
Source and references:
1. Elif Inan-Eroglu and  Aylin Ayaz,Is aluminum exposure a risk factor for 
neurological disorders?, J Res Med Sci. 2018; 23: 51., 
doi: 10.4103/jrms.JRMS_921_17
2. Sajid M, Ilyas M, PTFE-coated non-stick cookware and toxicity concerns: 
a perspective,Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2017 Oct;24(30):23436-23440. doi: 
10.1007/s11356-017-0095-y. Epub  2017 Sep 14. 
7.Kristin L. Kamerud, Kevin A. Hobbie, and  Kim A. Anderson, Stainless 
Steel Leaches Nickel and Chromium into Foods During Cooking, J Agric Food 
Chem. 2013 Oct 2; 61(39): 9495–9501,   doi: 10.1021/jf402400v
9.Guarneri F, Costa C, Cannavò SP, Catania S, Bua GD, Fenga C, Dugo G,
Release of nickel and chromium in common foods during cooking in 18/10 
(grade 316) stainless steel pots,Contact Dermatitis. 2017 Jan;76(1):40-48.             
Bikramjit Konwar

Author: Bikramjit Konwar


3 Responses

  1. Nice information. One should be careful while buying cookwares. Most of us are not even aware of potential toxicity of teflon coated non stick wards. At the same time, stainless steel also can potentially leech chromium and nickel. Hopefully, good part is if we do not eat food cooked in acidic medium on a daily basis, chances of chromium and nickel toxicity may be less with stainless steel utensils.

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