Cooking with natural gas may be hazardous to your health

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Photo by Kwon Junho/Unsplash

Cooking on a natural gas stove is a food preparation method rooted in the heart of a home, a symbolic hearth glowing blue. Perhaps that dancing flame beneath the pan satisfies a primal urge, summoning an archetypal need for human control over fire. But a Rocky Mountain Institute report pulls together two decades of research indicating that cooking with natural gas is not only harmful to the planet, it is detrimental to public health.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020, carbon dioxide emissions produced by natural gas were 1,448 million metric tons, a nearly 32% share of the electric power sector total. It’s long been acknowledged that CO2 drives climate change.The RMI report indicated that gas stoves emit high levels of nitrogen oxide, NO2 and carbon monoxide, notable pollutants generated from burning gas: Tests show gas stoves spew double the particulates than electrics.

In the United States, a 2017 kitchen audit by The NPD Group showed that 35% of households cook on gas stoves while 55% cook with electricity. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates outdoor air quality, it’s much harder to regulate what’s inside your home, and that’s the air you breathe most of the time: People spend up to 90 percent of the day indoors, according to the EPA.

Although the Clean Air Act of 1970 resulted in a 74 percent decrease of outdoor pollutant emissions, indoor air pollution has not been addressed by federal regulations or guidelines. This is a problem, said Dr. Robert Janata, a pulmonologist with UCHealth, who equated the air quality resulting from cooking with gas to cigarette smoking and last year’s Colorado wildfires.

“There are a number of different particulate type items produced with cooking,” he said. “Healthy amounts are zero to 12 micrograms per meter cubed. During last year’s fire season, the Front Range saw areas in the 50-100 range, a lung irritating feature precipitating asthma symptoms and respiratory infections,” Janata said.

“We know carbon monoxide is bad; there’s always a little bit of background in a home,” he said. “But in homes with gas stoves, it goes from 5 to 15 parts per million (ppm) in a well-ventilated stove to 30 ppm in poorly ventilated or burning stoves. Studies looking at Chinese-style cooking with an open wok saw 160 micrograms per meter cubed. That’s like you’re actively smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day.”

Homes these days are built tighter, requiring outside air exchangers to bring new air into the house to prevent poor quality air, Janata said. If air exchange mechanisms and ventilation systems don’t exist or operate inefficiently, indoor air quality suffers. And while there might be a hood over the stove to vent out harmful gases, many home cooks use them sporadically.

“From a breathing standpoint, we would say, ‘don’t go outside with those levels,’ but we’re spending 90 percent of our time in an indoor environment.”

Janata listed a handful of health risks when cooking with gas, linking toxic gases like nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide to respiratory issues inducing lung injury, pulmonary inflammation, carcinogenic aspects, impaired lung function and chronic lung disease.

“I don’t think people realize they’re breathing in CO and NO to such high levels. I would have to wonder if people knew they were exposing themselves to similar levels of things comparable to a forest fire on a daily basis.”

Electricity as the alternative to natural gas

Colorado state data found that burning natural gas in homes and businesses, primarily for heating and cooking, added up to nearly 8% of total carbon emissions in 2015.

Thanks to an initiative spearheaded by the Sierra Club, Colorado communities are working towards committing to 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2035. Led by Denver, a combined 15 cities and counties have signed on, to date: Expect to see building codes mandate all electric buildings in new construction. Electric stoves are generally less expensive than gas. Models with coils are cheaper than glass-topped models but heat up slower and cook unevenly. Flat cooktop electric ranges add a modern look to the kitchen and clean-up is easier than coils with removable drip pans.

But glass cooktops can limit cookware options. You can’t use heavy-duty enameled cast iron cookware, and that campfire-friendly Lodge skillet is off the table, too. You can use cast iron on electric coils, but performance is erratic and could possibly damage the pot.

Because it’s hard to know how hot a coil or flat surface stove is, there’s always the possibility of burning food. And since electric stoves take time to cool after cooking, melting plastic or silicone cooking tools or burns are another hazard.

People who cook with gas like it for the ease of gauging heat level by a flame’s height, said award-winning chef, Travis Smith. Having earned multiple gold and silver medals in culinary competitions worldwide, Smith co-brands his Bistro Colorado establishment with 511 Rose in Historic Georgetown, Colorado and is also at Puma Hills Resort. He’s familiar with both gas and electric cooktops, including induction, but mostly uses gas in restaurants, his Bistro Colorado food truck, and for grilling and frying.

Smith said he likes gas for its lack of limitations, noting that any pan will heat up over a gas flame, whether it’s aluminum, entry level cookware from a set or a pot purchased at a garage sale. There’s that ease of use, too.

“You know you’ll need a medium flame to brown onions, a low flame to simmer tomato sauce. It’s convenient.”

But there are newer electric alternatives to gas that just take some getting used to. Here are a couple of options to consider if you’re looking to transition from gas to electric cooking:

  • Induction has been around for 20 years. Smith said when a unit is on, it’s ON, and it cools immediately after use. Induction utilizes a magnetic field that requires a metal pan. Any steel or iron cookware will do. The popular non-stick Teflon pan for eggs and omelettes won’t work, so switching to induction may require investing in new pots and pans. Induction cooktops are available for as low as $55 for a single burner portable unit to thousands of dollars for high-end, decorator-style ranges. Smith noted that a pot of water boils rapidly over high heat with the induction method.
  • Sous vide cooking with water baths or ovens involves vacuum sealing vegetables and proteins in plastic bags. The technique has been around for over 50 years. Herbs can be added to infuse flavor, and meats can be finished by caramelizing on a stovetop. Smith suggested an immersion circulator like Anova for household use, where you can control the temperature from your phone.

“‘Sous vide’ means ‘under pressure,’” he said. “You can even put watermelon, berries, or radishes in the bag, it makes them turn translucent and intensifies the flavor. Poached eggs can be cooked in the shell in an hour. The method is all about precision cooking at a specific temperature for a specific time. It’s healthier and cleaner, too.”

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