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Are Crockpots Worth the Risk?

January 18, 2012

crockpot
Photo by janineomg

Did you get or give a slow cooker for Christmas? They seem to be a pretty popular gift. I’ve been toying with getting one for a while. Hours and hours of slow cooking, in a safe and energy efficient way. The primal/paleo crowd seems to love them. So what’s the problem? Sadly, the potential for lead to leach out of your crockpot and into your food.

Crockpot inserts (what you put your food into), are most commonly made of glazed ceramic, which has a reputation for leaching lead. This made big news back in 2004 in an investigative report by Bill Gephardt from KUTV in Salt Lake City. He discovered that when ceramic ware was heated to just 80 degrees, it released nearly 10 times the amount of lead as a plate at room temperature. The FDA limits the amount of lead that is allowed to leach from cookware. But there isn’t a “safe” amount of lead to have in your body.

“Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.”        – The Mayo Clinic

Since that report came out, many people have called the manufacturers, only to get mixed answers. The best that some of the manufacturers are able to do is to say that they are FDA approved.

This sketches me out. And I’m not really keen on any of the alternatives I’ve come across. For example, there are unglazed crockpots, but lead is naturally found in all sorts of ceramic materials, not just in the glaze – same goes for clay. The plastic (often nylon) liners that people used in their crockpots concern me as well – I avoiding heating plastic. There are also some aluminum crockpots out there – aluminum is also not something that you want accumulating in your body, plus many of them have non-stick coatings (Teflon or some variation thereof). And with stainless steel comes the risk of nickel. The thing to remember with crockpots, too, is that even though the crockpot is at a relatively low temperature, your food is in there for many hours.

Some people have gone as far as testing their crockpots for lead. But even if the test comes back negative, I’d question if it was tested at the right temperature, or after enough hours of cooking. Or what if acidic ingredients were used, or the crockpot was new versus old, or there was a tiny unnoticeable crack? If it has the potential to leach lead, then there’s a chance it will do so at some point in the future, even if it didn’t at the one point in time that it was tested.

I don’t really think that any cookware is completely safe. But on the safety spectrum, I tend to trust Pyrex, cast iron, and enameled cast iron. From what I’ve researched, those seem to be safest options out there. It’s too bad I haven’t come across any glass or cast iron crockpots.

For me, it’s just not worth the worry of questioning if my crockpot is leaching lead into my food. If I don’t feel confident that it’s not, I’d rather not use it. Until I find something that I can trust, I’ll just keep using the old fashioned crockpot – i.e. the cast iron Dutch oven.

Are crockpots worth the risk to you?

Shared with Food Renegade and Real Food Wednesdays.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate January 18, 2012 at 8:05 AM

Jeez. I love my crockpot. This is a bummer.

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[email protected] January 18, 2012 at 11:03 AM

Bummer indeed – I love the crockpot concept..

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Julie January 18, 2012 at 3:50 PM

I had a “Crock-Pot” by Rival that I threw out (getting old anyway) because I had heard that Rival brand did use lead in the glaze. I have heard from several sources that Hamilton beach brand slow cookers use glaze that is lead free. So I got one of those last fall and use it at least 3 times a week for making chicken stock. Should I worry? I find it indispensable.

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[email protected] January 18, 2012 at 8:42 PM

From what I’ve read, when customers called various brands to find out if their crockpots were “lead-free”, they were told that the lead present was within permissible FDA standards. The lead was there either because a) there was some small amount of lead that was actually used or b) lead is naturally occurring in the types of materials that are used for crockpots. I find that unsettling enough to opt out of owning a crockpot, but everyone has a different level of risk-aversion.

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Julie January 19, 2012 at 7:20 AM

Thank you for this info. I need to think on this.

Stans February 1, 2014 at 3:27 PM

I’ve used the rival and the Hamilton beach, both of which i know have some amount of lead leaching into my food. (test the food, not the pot by the way) so after a lot of searching i got myself an MEC multi-cooking pot. i use these pots in the oven as a slow cooker. just set timer in the oven and put the filled pot in. The advantage to this is i can cook in more than 1 pot at a time and it actually takes about 1 to 2 hours less when done in the oven with these pots. As far as the lead i have no worries these pots are guaranteed to be lead and cadmium free, the raw materiel is made of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium etc no lead. did the test and passed 200% . love these pots.

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Whitney Lemons January 21, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Thank you for spreading the information about lead in slow cookers.
I went without using a slow cooker for years because of the possibility of lead. I recently got one, however, with an unglazed purple clay insert that is not only lead free, but rich in minerals. There are some expensive options that use the Zisha clay, but through another blog (http://pepperpaints.com/2011/01/14/thursdays-recipe-fail-fridays-kitchen-gadget-update/) I found an affordable option that is available through Home Depot online or amazon.
I’ve used it a few times and I’m happy with it so far. My only issues are that it cooks a little hotter than I can maintain in a dutch oven (which my research says is typical with all slow cookers sold in the last ~15 years) and that it will shut off automatically when the temp reaches various thresholds depending on the low, high or auto settings. It may not be the perfect solution for bone broth that I want to keep at a low simmer for days, but I can probably make it work and it has been great for pork shoulder and roast so far.
In the Texas summer, I’ll use the crockpot over the oven for slow roasted pork shoulder or brisket for (lettuce) tacos, etc. since it won’t heat up the house.

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[email protected] January 21, 2012 at 11:32 AM

Hi Whitney, thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience with you clay crockpot – a lot of people are curious about these and may find your comment helpful.

When looking into slow cookers, the VitaClay crockpot (unglazed Zisha clay) was the one that came up most often as a potential alternative. However, there was still some doubt about if it was 100% lead free. Yes, the company made it clear that they did not add any clay, and they had tests done saying it’s 99.99% lead free, but there remains the issue of naturally occurring lead in clay. Apparently it can be an impurity in the clay itself, which worries me.

Also, for anyone that does have a VitaClay, you may want to check if the element at the bottom has a Teflon-like non-stick coating, as apparently some of the models do (potentially off-gassing toxic fumes when heated).

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Danielle @ Analytical Mom January 21, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Fascinating stuff. I had never even considered the lead issue, since, as you say, all the big brands of crock pot are FDA-approved. If you’re used to making a ton of things in the crock-pot, I guess it just comes down to whether giving it up will seriously cramp your real-food style, or whether you’ll be able to switch without compromising (potentially) more important aspects of your diet.

For me, the crock pot is currently worth the risk, since it saves me enough time and money to actually buy and prepare real food! Fortunately, I think people who are eating real food and taking good care of their bodies will naturally detox (even heavy metals) much more efficiently than those who are on the SAD. I wonder, since lead is found naturally in so many materials, if people have just been detoxing naturally from it for thousands of years? After all, clay cooking pots have been a pretty universal device since cooking began. You might even argue that clay cooking pots (and thus, the lead they contain) are “primal,” right? :)

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[email protected] January 21, 2012 at 3:40 PM

Hi Danielle, thanks for the thought-provoking comment :)

Unfortunately for us, we’re under a way heavier toxic load than those that came before us. We’re exposed to chemicals and toxins in so many forms, from the air we breathe, to all the man-made things we use, and the food we eat. A lot of that gunk accumulates. Plus, just because it’s “natural”, or comes from the earth, or people have been using it for thousands of years, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for us. The whole tolerated vs optimal thing. I do agree with you that eating a clean diet plays to our advantage, both in terms of detox and just plain less crap in our systems. I guess I’m in the camp where since there are so many things that I can’t control, I exercise caution where I am able. A lot of the foods that I’d like to use a crock pot for, I just cook in the dutch oven (albeit somewhat less conveniently).

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Danielle @ Analytical Mom January 21, 2012 at 3:53 PM

Great points (especially about the increased toxic load in recent years)! I guess it just boils down to doing what you can where you can. My family is still gradually phasing out teflon-coated pans, one at a time, as we can afford it, so I guess the crock-pot hasn’t been very high on my toxin-avoidance priority list. It’s definitely something to think about though – I’ve been doing a little more research about it to decide how urgent the problem is!

You might be interested in the results obtained at Terminal Verbosity (the blogger doesn’t give much information about herself, but the research sounds fairly thorough) when she did some lead testing on various crock pot materials. I’d be interested to hear what you think of her results.

http://www.terminalverbosity.com/2009/11/09/the-skinny-on-lead-in-crock-pots-it-may-surprise-you/

Kristy @ Little Natural Cottage September 21, 2012 at 2:20 PM

I so appreciate this informative post.

I have used a slow cooker (nearly every day) for most of my 10 years of marriage. I too find my Crock Pot indespensible!

Since I’m in the market for a new slow cooker, I am doing a little research. I will look into Whitney’s link. Again, thank you for this valuable information.

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[email protected] September 21, 2012 at 6:06 PM

No problem! Let us know what you end up buying!

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lu September 24, 2012 at 6:12 PM
Ben Stubbs July 18, 2013 at 9:45 PM

Take a look at this one guy’s experiment (link below); he tested crock-pots from various manufactures with an XRF meter, and had found no traces of lead — that’s encouraging. Keep in mind that this particular experiment was not a peer-reviewed study, but his methodology appeared effective.

http://www.terminalverbosity.com/2009/11/09/the-skinny-on-lead-in-crock-pots-it-may-surprise-you/

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Kelley August 27, 2013 at 10:15 PM

What about using something like this? It is stainless steel and doesn’t appear to using any coatings?
http://garyandlinda.360cookware.com/stainless-steel-cookware-products/360-cookware/additional-products/gourmet-cooker-4-quart-stockpot-with-cover

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[email protected] August 27, 2013 at 10:23 PM

Interesting. I’d prefer enamel, since I don’t use stainless steel pots/pans, but this could be an interesting option for people who are okay with using stainless steel. Thanks for commenting, I’ll look more into it.

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Meghan December 12, 2013 at 6:20 PM

Curious- don’t use stainless steel pots and pans, what do you cook with?!

Carol October 22, 2013 at 10:45 AM

Hi,
Would you also rule out the enameled
Le Creuset dutch ovens?

Thanks,
Carol

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[email protected] October 24, 2013 at 7:54 PM

Nope, based on my research, enameled Le Creuset dutch ovens are some of the safest pots you can use.

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Dr. Rob D'Aquila November 2, 2013 at 9:34 AM

Thanks for this article. I was just about to gift one of these to my girlfriend and thought that the aluminum wouldn’t be good, but obviously the ceramic isn’t either. I find lead (and other toxic metals) to be a major problem for many of my patients. People think that because gasoline and paint are “unleaded” nowadays, there’s no other risk options. But this clearly is. Good research! And yes, I agree about Pyrex, cast iron and enameled cast iron as being the best options.

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[email protected] November 18, 2013 at 9:15 PM

Thanks for your comment! As with seemingly everything nowadays, it’s buyer beware. Everyone still seems to assume that if it’s on a store shelf, it’s safe. Sadly, that couldn’t be further from the truth…

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Sara January 11, 2014 at 7:28 PM

Thank you for this informative post, which sent me searching through the web before making up my mind. I ended up finding this product, which is stainless steel AND made in the US, so the quality control should be more reliable than those made in China (I try to avoid any product made in China- living in Asia for a few years has put me off Chinese products for life, no matter what the FDA may say about safety…). It’s more expensive so there aren’t that many reviews around, but I might give it a try.
http://www.360cookware.com/stainless-steel-cookware-products/360-cookware/additional-products/gourmet-cooker-4-quart-stockpot-with-cover

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[email protected] January 11, 2014 at 7:42 PM

Cool, thanks a lot for sharing! I personally would still prefer something enameled, but stainless steel is certainly one of the better options, and I’m sure people reading this post will find your suggestion useful.

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Stans January 15, 2014 at 6:54 AM

I was so tired of searching for one that has no lead when I finally almost gave up; I came across MEC clay cookware. These are cooking pots made from pure and natural clay. They’re clay is tested to be free from lead and that’s their guarantee. These pots are also amazing because they can be used on the stove top, in the oven and also in the slow cooker. I actually only cook my meals halfway on the stove top and them put the pot in the slow cooker and set in on ‘warm’ not high or low and my food is all cooked by the time I come home—this saves me so much on energy bills too. I’ve been using them for the past 9 months and loving it. Feel so much better too, the food tastes great. Pure-clay does not have any contaminants including lead or cadmium, but it needs to be tested to verify. I’m glad the manufacturer takes the responsibility of testing this. MEC clay cookware is also made USA.

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NutriMom April 10, 2014 at 11:26 PM

Actually, I have an old slow-cooker that uses a Corning pyroceram insert, with clear glass lid. The Pyroceram baking dishes are being made again (got some new ones at a local Corning outlet.) You may be able to find one that fits your slow-cooker and retro-fit (although it seems slow-cookers are all round or oval-shaped these days.)

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[email protected] January 21, 2012 at 4:12 PM

I totally agree with doing what you can where you can. I don’t expect the crockpot issue to be a top priority for a lot of people – there are certainly bigger fish to fry (Teflon being one of them!).

Those results were actually what was on my mind when I wrote about some people testing their crockpots. I just ended up pondering that bunch of follow-up questions about testing methodology. It’s certainly a great start, but it just wasn’t conclusive or extensive enough to make me feel more comfortable..

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Ben Stubbs July 18, 2013 at 9:46 PM

I would definitely agree that Teflon is the bigger fish to fry.

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[email protected] December 19, 2013 at 10:09 PM

For pans I use cast iron (Lodge) and enameled cast iron hybrids (Le Creuset). For pots, I use enameled steel.

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