is aluminum foil safe for cooking food

Is Aluminum Foil Safe For The Cooking, Wrapping, & Storing Of Food?

Although preferred by many cooks, aluminum foil may not be as safe for the cooking, wrapping, and storing of food as we once believed. In many conditions, the metal can very easily leach from the foil and enter the food that we are about to eat.

Moreover, this metal leaching can quickly attain dangerous levels. Levels being more than those set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Furthermore, aluminum as a cooking medium is not just limited to foil. Aluminum is also a popular choice for many kitchen utensils, storage containers, and cookware lining.

It is now so prevalent and commonplace in our kitchens that we never ask the question;- how safe is it?

So to answer that question, let’s take a closer look at aluminum. Here we will discover what is it, how our bodies retain it, and what damage can it do?

What Is Aluminium?

Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth and can be found almost everywhere on the planet. It is always found as a compound mixed with other elements and occurs naturally in both, soil and water.

Although, in truth, it is never found as a free metal and needs to be physically processed into the form that we know and love. This form is, of course, metal aluminum slabs, and the process for creating them was perfected in France circa 1903.

racing pigeon aluminum leg bands

Strange fact; One of the first uses for aluminum foil was to create leg bands to identify racing pigeons.

By 1911 these slabs were being rolled in a rolling mill to achieve an even thinner foil. However, it was not until 1913 that it was first used commercially in America. Its first recorded usage here was as a food covering for Life Saver sweets.

By the early 1960s, we even had aluminum Christmas trees complete with foil-covered branches and decorations.

Amazingly particles of aluminum are found in the air. The concentrations here are however extremely low and range from 0.005 to 0.18 micrograms per cubic meter depending upon location.

Natural waters such as lakes and streams also contain aluminum being generally at a concentration below 0.1 milligrams per liter. Meaning that the human body is always prone to ingesting aluminum.

This ingestion has never been identified as a problem as we have evolved to excrete it through natural processes. However, recently the human body has begun to collect more than it excretes, and this revelation has prompted scientists to investigate.

How Does Aluminum Leach Into The Food We Eat

Aluminum foil is extremely thin, is malleable, and has a high resistance to heat. This is why many of us use it in the cooking, wrapping, and storing of food. 

However, it is not indestructible and it should not be automatically considered 100% safe for the human body.

Recent studies have shown that it will break down and leach aluminum into food substances. This leaching can then expose us to higher concentrations of aluminum than our bodies would naturally encounter.

The amount of leaching increases substantially with the addition of heat, spices, and an acid or alkaline solution. Think of an oven-ready chicken with a spicy lemon rub wrapped in foil. Place this into a hot oven and you have provided all the elements for the perfect storm.

In this scenario, leaching can occur and very quickly exceed the levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organisation, (WHO).

Leaching can also occur when the aluminum foil is covering but not touching the food. In this scenario, the chicken is in a tin with only the food vapors coming into contact with the foil.

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What Is An Acceptable Level Of Aluminum In The Human Body?

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) TWI 1 mg aluminum/kg body weight Tolerable weekly intake (TWI)
World Health Organization (WHO) PTWI 2 mg aluminum/kg body weight Provisional tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) 

Amazingly, this total can be achieved through dietary exposure alone which is why I recommend that you use aluminum foil with care.

How To Measure Aluminum Levels Leached Into Food Through Cooking

Factors that influence the levels of aluminum leaching into food from cooking and wrapping would include:

  • Thickness and quality of aluminum foil used
  • Heat level and period of exposure
  • Placement/wrapping (touching or not touching food)
  • Type of exposure under heat (direct contact or vapor)
  • Food type used (spices, acid, alkaline)
  • Condition (reused foil or crumpled foil)

Given that there can be many factors involved in the home environment, an exact amount of leaching is incalculable. 

However, A 2012 scientific study published in the International Journal of Electrochemical Science, investigated the amount of aluminum that leaches into food cooked with aluminum foil.

The findings varied, but they did show conclusively that aluminum foil does leach into food when cooked in aluminum foil.

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Aluminum Toxicity
(When Is It Harmful)?

Exposure to aluminum is usually not harmful as the human body excretes small amounts of aluminum very efficiently. However, exposure to high levels can cause serious health problems. These problems may be exacerbated substantially in those more at risk of developing aluminum toxicity.

 The following factors increase your chances of developing aluminum toxicity:

  • Drinking or ingesting substances that are high in aluminum
  • Diminished kidney function (Kidney disease causes less aluminum to be removed from the body and passed in the urine).
  • Living/working in an environment that already contains high levels of aluminum
  • Hemodialysis
  • Living/working in dusty environments (aluminum can be airborne for many months)
  • Receiving long-term IV nutrition
  • Daily use of Aluminum foil where leaching could occur and enter the body

In Addition:

Neurotoxic effects in dialysis patients treated with aluminum-containing dialysis fluids have been demonstrated.

High dust exposure in the workplace can cause particle-related diseases (aluminosis).

Elevated levels of aluminum have been observed in the general population since the commercial arrival of aluminum foil in 1913. Scientists are now exploring the link between these elevated levels and the arrival of modern diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. (More on this later)

Alzheimer's and aluminum foil

How Can I Control My Aluminum Intake

All people have small (trace) amounts of aluminum in their bodies obtained from natural resources. In addition to this, aluminum is an ingredient in many consumer products. It is also an ingredient in some freshwater treatment works.

Consumer products containing aluminum:

  • Antacids – 300–600 mg aluminum hydroxide (approximately 104–208 mg of aluminum) per tablet, capsule, or 5 milliliters (mL) liquid dose.
  • Astringents
  • Antiperspirants
  • Aluminum foils (including food packaging and trays)
  • Buffered aspirin (10–20 mg of aluminum per tablet)
  • Cosmetics (including sun creams and toothpaste)
  • Cooking utensils
  • Food additives (usually found in processed foods)
  • Vaccines – aluminum compounds, no greater than 0.85 mg/dose.

Aluminum compounds can also be an addition to the ingredients list in the processing of foods. Foods such as flour, baking powder, or coloring agents can all contain aluminum. 

So you now know that the consumption of aluminum is unavoidable, and is usually safe for all of us.

Symptoms Of Aluminum Toxicity

  • Confusion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Bone pain, deformities, and fractures
  • Seizures
  • Speech problems
  • Slow growth—in children

If you think you have been exposed to high levels of aluminum, contact your doctor immediately. This is especially important if you have kidney disease or are on dialysis.

Is The Dull Side Of Aluminum Foil Safer Than The Shiny Side?

The answer to this question is no. It makes no difference to its physical properties.

The difference between the two sides is all to do with the manufacturing process, called milling. During this process, an aluminum block is heated, rolled, and stretched under tension between rollers.

As the foil is so thin and fragile, two layers are pressed and rolled together to prevent it from breaking. Where the two layers are in contact with each other the foil becomes dull. Therefore the performance of each side remains the same with only the appearance being different.

Dad’s fact; There are approximately 7 billion aluminum foil containers produced annually. Or to put it another way, 220 foil containers produced every second!

Sustainable Alternatives To Aluminum Foil For The Cooking, Wrapping, & Storing Of Food

Aluminum foil is cheap, recyclable, and makes cooking a cinch. However, I think the suspected risk to health over the long term is just too high. For this reason, I would recommend using glassware, porcelain, or stainless steel for your oven-cooked dishes.

Other bakeware would include cast iron or enameled cast iron pots, pans, and casserole dishes. Cast iron is also great for outdoor cooking married with stainless steel skewers, racks, and baskets.

Just be sure to watch out for any nonstick coatings as they also carry health risks.

When wrapping cold food I recommend using waxed paper. Alternatively, use a cloth using the Furoshiki method. Glass jars are another great way to store cold food, and my kitchen is full of them. Just make sure that you date code the food jars as some things can go off very quickly.

Dad’s tip; To get old labels off jars, try this method. Soak the jars in hot water and then remove the paper. Once done, apply olive oil and then baking soda to the glue and leave for a few minutes. Next, simply rub the mixture off by hand and wash the jar once again.

Aluminum And Alzheimer's Disease

dependent-Alzheimer's.jpg

The information below is a direct quote. To read the full article click here.

From a critical perspective, the following can be concluded on aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Aluminum can cause (in the case of extreme exposure) specific encephalopathy with a dementia syndrome.
  • This aluminum encephalopathy is a distinct disease entity and is not the same as Alzheimer-type dementia.
  • Elevated aluminum concentrations can be detected in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. However, it is unclear whether aluminum is the cause of the change, or whether a secondary, independent change (apposition) takes place due to the Alzheimer’s pathology.
  • Epidemiological studies provide only very uncertain indications of an association between aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, although it is controversial, there is growing evidence to support a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, it has been widely accepted that aluminum is a recognized neurotoxin. And, that it could cause cognitive deficiency and dementia when it enters the brain.

Therefore, from a preventive medicine perspective, aluminum exposure should be kept as low as possible (principle of minimizing).

In Summary

Aluminum foil is not indestructible and will, given the right conditions, leach aluminum into your food. Moreover, if you are unable to effectively discharge the aluminum from your body it can cause you serious harm.

The World Health Organization has set a provisional tolerable weekly intake of aluminum at 2mg aluminum/kg body weight. This total can easily be achieved through dietary exposure without the addition of vaccines, prescription drugs, cosmetics, and antiperspirants.

So do you really need to take the risk?

When it’s so easy to find an alternative in glassware and other materials I would say ditch the foil. Wash your food to clear the pesticides and then safely cook, wrap, and store your food in glass-based products.

sustainability dad

Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019. 

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He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.

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