Dr. Asha Singh
Aluminium utensils are ubiquitous in Indian households and other developing countries. Aluminium metal has certain physical and chemical properties like malleability, high heat conductivity that make it usable for fabricating utensils. A wide variety of aluminium cookware and utensils are used throughout the world. Much of this cookware is locally made, uncoated and non anodized. Aluminium wrought utensils are commonly used in developing countries for the purpose of mass cooking in the army and hostel messes, and as aluminium foil in cooking as well as food packaging in both developing and developed countries. Aluminium utensils are used widely because they are lightweight, cheap, rust-free and easily available. However, aluminium is a non essential element and using aluminium cookware for a long time under certain conditions can pose various health risks for human beings.
Aluminium is a growing public health concern especially because of its link to various diseases and to other neurological problems. According to some recent studies, cooking a meal in an aluminium pan adds about 1 to 2 mg of aluminium to our food and daily intake of 10 mg of aluminium is reported from different sources (including cookwares). According to WHO, safe upper limit for aluminium consumption for adults is 50 mg. Fact is that, amount of aluminium leaching into the food during cooking increases, if the pan is pitted and worn. The longer the food is cooked or kept in the pot, more is the leaching.
Furthermore, leaching of aluminium from cooking utensils depends on many factors such as pH, temperature and cooking medium. Lime, tomato and other acidic substances when cooked in aluminium vessels help ions of this metal to dissolve in the food faster and such food is harmful to the body. In recent times, wrapping meat and fish prior to oven cooking has become a common practice which has led to the excessive consumption of aluminium leached from aluminium foil. Studies on leaching of aluminium in meat of various types, cooked in different food solutions of tomato juice, citric acid, apple vinegar packed with aluminium foil indicate that cooking increases the aluminium concentration in white and red meats with leaching values ranging between 59.83 – 220.20 mg/kg. The capacity of the human body to excrete this metal is limited and gradually it starts accumulating in cells of the muscles, kidneys, liver, bones etc.
Diseases caused by aluminium toxicity are depression, anxiety, decreased kidney function, diarrhoea, hyperacidity, colitis, repeated inflammation in the mouth and skin diseases such as eczema etc. Aluminium reduces growth of bone and predisposes it to osteoporosis. Accumulation of aluminium in the brain appears to be a major cause in the development of a neurological syndrome called ‘dialysis encephalopathy’ or ‘dialysis dementia’. Aluminium is neurotoxic and disintegrate myelination sheath around axons of neurons. It leads to memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of functions of nerves, tinnitus, headache, migraine, epileptic attacks, nerve signal fluctuations, sensory and motor neuron dysfunctions.
One can minimize the amount of aluminium entering our food by avoiding cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes in aluminium cookware. We should also avoid storing leftovers in aluminium dishes or wrapping hot foods in aluminium foils as it allows food to absorb small amounts of aluminium. A progressive shift to the use of anodized aluminium cookware should be encouraged to minimize the leaching of aluminium into cooked food. According to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), aluminium utensils used for cooking should have a high grade of smoothness which is obtained by coating of aluminium oxide and anodizing the surface. Cooking utensils should be cleaned with soft materials and precautions should be taken to preserve the protective anodized layer. Manufacturers instruct that these utensils should never be rubbed with hard or metallic scrub.
Moreover, it is better to stop using old aluminium cookware and switch to better alternatives such as stainless steel or cast iron vessels. Another great option for safe cooking is earthen ware. Clay pots are gaining popularity nowadays because of their special style of cooking. However, it is difficult to cook food in earthen pots otherwise, earthen pots are a healthy and safe cookware option. Furthermore, there is need for education and public enlightenment on the potential health implications of cooking in aluminium cookware especially in the developing countries like India. We all know that the food choices we make are vital for our health, but now, the time has come to realise that choosing the right cookware is also of great significance for our health.
(The author is Assistant Professor in Environmental Sciences Govt. Degree College Bishnah)
Dr. Asha Singh