Teflon is bad for you: true or false?

There you were smugly avoiding that whole trans-fat hornets’ nest by using non-stick pots and pans. And then someone tells you that Teflon, the miracle stuff that coats them all, is bad for you. Relax: you haven’t traded one early death for another. Teflon is not poisonous — as long as it’s used properly.

Teflon is a brand name. The real name of this stuff is polytetrafluoroethylene. I say real name, but of course that’s just the name chemists give it, and their professional dignity seems to be based on coming up with the longest names possible.

Anyway, this mouthful usually gets abbreviated to PTFE. It’s commonly used to make plastic containers and pipes. In fact it is ideal for this, and is particularly useful for those same chemists to store hydrochloric this and methyl that in as they try to concoct something with a truly monstrous moniker. That’s because PTFE is very inert, meaning it won’t react with very much at all, a very desirable property if you are planning on storing chemicals that react with just about anything. Unlike glass, it is also tough and it is more durable in harsh environments than other plastics.

These things also make it good to coat a frying pan with. It’s very inert, so it won’t do anything to the food or, more importantly, our insides. It is durable at high temperatures where other plastics would melt or burn. And of course it is extremely slippery.

If you swallow bits of Teflon they won’t hurt you. It’s just plastic. If you burn Teflon, though, things are different. When Teflon is heated too strongly the resulting fumes, for reasons not yet fully understood, are very bad for you. Fortunately it’s hard to get Teflon too hot, but it could possibly happen if a coated pan is left dry on a hot element or in a very hot oven. So don’t do that.

Nothing sticks to Teflon, except the unfounded rumour of its toxicity. But, like the burnt cheese in a frying pan commercial, even that just wipes right off.

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