Many years ago, cancer and certain health issues were considered “western” diseases in that they afflicted mostly western nations. Today, the tide seems to have turned. The race by Africans to copy verbatim whatever originates from the west, including their cuisine, has led to a high increase in the cases of cancer and other health challenges across the continent. There are too many probable causes of cancer and other diseases, which is outside the scope of this article. However, one much-overlooked cause of cancer and some illnesses, which many Africans remain unaware of, is the cooking pots and pans used innocently across the continent.
Years ago, Africans cooked with pans made from earth, the same substance in which the food they cooked was cultivated. The cooking utensils and the food formed a harmonious relationship with the human body that is made from clay according to Science and Scripture. With this harmony came a balance in health and wholeness; sickness, in the magnitude and variety that Africans experience today, was unheard of even as recent as 70 years ago.
With westernization, came a scorning of traditional cooking utensils as backward and fit only for poor, rural folks. Africans began to consider it classy to cook with aluminum or other such imported pans. However, enlightened citizens of western nations now know that, according to research, many of these cooking pans come with harmful chemicals that can cause serious health problems. As a matter of fact, the healthiest, highly recommended but very expensive cooking pans in the United States today are made from fired clay, minerals, and sand – the same materials as Africa’s earthenware pans. These are called 100% solid ceramic cookware and are considered the cleanest, most non-toxic cooking pan that anyone can ever purchase and use for cooking.
We shall now look at some commonly used cooking ware across Africa as well as their health implications, as established by scientific research.
Go around many markets across Africa and you will find an abundance of aluminum cookware proudly displayed by shop owners. Most African homes use aluminum pans to cook since it is basically affordable, lightweight and strong. However, cooking with aluminum comes with safety precautions, since it reacts with food especially when the food is acidic (think tomatoes, etc.), causing the metal to leach into the food being cooked.
Considered a neurotoxin, elevated levels of aluminum in the bloodstream have been linked to several diseases of the central nervous system including Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Worse still is that the kind of aluminum cookware sold across many parts of Africa have been phased out of stores in countries like the United States. These are the cheap, uncoated aluminum pans, which produce the worst reaction with foods. In the United States today, aluminum pots sold in stores are coated to minimize the leaking of toxic metals into the food, although that does not in any way make it a healthy option for cooking since the coating is subject to chipping.
Even worse is that the leaking of aluminum increases exponentially when the pan gets old or worn. Many African families use the same aluminum iron pot for decades, taking it for repairs when it develops holes.
Many studies have identified a high incidence of cancer among aluminum plant workers, and there are studies that connect breast cancer with the presence of aluminum in antiperspirants or deodorants. It has also been found that cooking with aluminum foils produces the same carcinogenic effects.
Many foods previously wrapped and cooked with banana or plantain leaves across African communities are now wrapped and cooked with aluminum foils.
The World Health Organization has declared a certain limit of aluminum ingestion per adult per day as being safe, but some studies doubt the validity of WHO’s recommendations noting that aluminum is harmful even at less than the WHO recommended ingestion.
Teflon “non-stick” cookware are still not too widely used in Africa for cooking, but many homes, especially the affluent ones, have Teflon pans for frying things like an egg. Teflon is a coating that prevents food from sticking to the pan while being cooked. They are coated with a plastic polymer that leaches out toxins when heated to a certain temperature.
Teflon is dangerous to health as its coating contains PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which has been linked to several types of cancer, including breast, bladder, kidney, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Another toxic substance found in Teflon pans known as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) can make users exhibit flu-like symptoms. These flu-like symptoms can also affect animals fed with foods cooked with Teflon and birds like parrots may die as a result. In fact, many Teflon products come with a warning to remove birds from the room when heating cooking pans as even the fumes are harmful to birds. It is hard to believe that a substance that can cause such fatality among birds will not harm a human being.
Other substances contained in such non-stick cooking pans can lead to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, and increased risk of high blood pressure, especially in pregnant women.
Plastics and Plastic wraps
Many Africans use plastic wraps to steam food as it cooks in a pot, or to wrap warm food to be served. In Senegal for instance, plastic is used to cover a pot of rice while it is steaming on the fire in order to intensify the steaming. In Nigeria, plastics are used to steam bean cake (moimoi) and used to wrap fufu in restaurants. In parts of East Africa, plastics are used to steam unripe bananas and used to wrap foods in restaurants.
In many homes with microwave ovens, plastics are used to store food in the refrigerator and then placed in the microwave to cook before being consumed.
Several studies have established that plastics contain harmful substances which leach into food when it is used to store food or to re-heat food or wrap warm food. Indeed, when food encounters heat in a plastic container or wrapper, leaching occurs at elevated levels. Numerous health problems have been associated with substances in chemicals making their way into the food we eat. These chemicals have been linked with cancer, obesity, and fertility problems.
Which Cookware is best?
Scientific research and studies have established that the best cookware is what our grandparents cooked with many years ago – fired clay. This is known as 100% solid ceramic cookware and is very expensive in the western world today. This is followed by glassware and cast iron. Stainless steel comes a distant last since it can also leach certain substances, though not as harmful as aluminum, Teflon, and plastic.
This article is not a clarion call for Africans to return to cooking on tripod stones, with firewood and clay pots – No. It is a call to look inwards to build innovation around what we have in abundance in Africa as far as what we use and value for cooking is concerned. There is no need to import cookware filled with harmful substances from China and other countries. We have clay in abundance in Africa and we also have whatever materials are needed to create fanciful, durable, and healthy cooking products for our teeming population.
Africans must explore ways of building businesses for export to the west and other nations where these healthy cooking pots are very expensive. Many westerners who are aware of the harmful effects of the widely available cooking pots would wish to cook with solid ceramic but find the cost-prohibitive. When Africans build innovation around such indigenous knowledge, they can produce things at a fraction of the cost in western nations and can build viable export businesses around such products. Africa’s indigenous knowledge remains the continent’s trajectory towards sustainable, authentic advancement.
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