Is It Safe to Cook With Aluminum Foil? We Did a Deep Dive
Read this before you fire up your grill.
You’re getting ready to make dinner at a good ol’ fashioned summer barbeque and as the grill heats, you’re prepping your meat, fish, and veggies. Then you’re struck by a conundrum: Should you cook those goodies on top of a metal tray? A grill mat? A sheet of parchment paper? Or what about aluminum foil — but wait, isn’t that dangerous?
To be fair, that last question is is a common health-related fear: In fact, when Katie recently posted an Instagram video of her cooking up some fish for dinner, she got a wave of comments saying she was taking a major risk by using foil to line her grill. Since the 1960s, claims have circulated that cooking food on aluminum foil can release neurotoxins into your dinner, putting you at higher risk of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. But is there any truth to this theory?
Here’s the lowdown on how aluminum foil impacts the food you eat, and whether cooking with foil should inspire any serious cause for concern.
When it comes to cooking food on aluminum foil, there unfortunately isn’t a clear consensus from scientists regarding safety. That’s due in part to the fact that different kinds of food absorb varying amounts of aluminum when they cook on top of the foil.
For example, salmon has been shown to absorb more aluminum than chicken breast does. But even that measurement isn’t that simple: According to a 2019 study published in the Czech Journal of Food Sciences, three different types of salmon might absorb three different levels of aluminum depending on their position on the grill or stove, their size, the acidity level in the ingredients, and more.
A post shared by Katie Couric (@katiecouric)
Because there’s so much variation in terms of how much aluminum any given piece of food will absorb from the foil, it’s near-impossible to predict exactly how much leaching might occur during the cooking process. Complicating these matters even further is the fact that there’s no official metric clarifying how much aluminum absorption is too much — or if “too much” is even a legitimate concern, health-wise. (And it’s not like most people have a handy dandy at-home measurement system to keep them updated on how much aluminum they’ve consumed for the day, so it’s not an easy metric to track as-is.)
A number of publications do claim that aluminum is connected to certain neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. But actual scientists are split on what the data indicates: One study by the International Journal of Electrochemical Science stated that excessive consumption of food baked with aluminum foil may carry a “serious health risk,” but that study didn’t state a clear connection between aluminum consumption and those apparent health risks.
Another study, by the scientific journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology, argued in 2014 that there is no strong evidence linking aluminum consumption to increased risk of disease — though that study was partially funded by the International Aluminium Institute and the Aluminium Reach Consortium. But as a counterpoint, the European Food Safety Authority has expressed skepticism that dietary aluminum is connected to higher rates of any type of cancer or disease.
“Aluminum is unlikely to be a human carcinogen at dietary relevant doses,” the panel wrote in a 2008 report. “It has been suggested that aluminum is implicated in the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease and associated with other neurodegenerative diseases in humans. However…based on the available scientific data, the panel does not consider exposure to aluminum via food to constitute a risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
The EFSA report also noted, “The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in an updated statement on aluminium and Alzheimer disease concluded ‘So far no causal relationship has been proven scientifically between elevated aluminium uptake from foods including drinking water, medical products or cosmetics and Alzheimer disease. Amyloid deposits in the brain are typical for Alzheimer. However, an above-average frequency was not observed either in dialysis patients or in aluminium workers – two groups of individuals who come into contact with aluminium on a larger scale.'”
Still, given the conflicting reports on just how dangerous it is to consume aluminum, it’s entirely understandable to want to deploy a “better safe than sorry” approach to this whole issue.
If you want to minimize the amount of aluminum in your diet, one obvious way is to get rid of foil in your kitchen routine entirely. You can cook your food directly on the grill or use a grill mat, non-aluminum pan, or baking sheet instead, if need be. Another strategy is to conduct an audit on your kitchen accessories: Silverware, pots and pans, serving utensils, and other kitchen tools are often made with aluminum. When you combine any of those items with heat, traces of the metal can leach into your food.
There’s an important distinction to make here, though: It’s virtually impossible (and medically unnecessary) to completely eliminate aluminum from your diet. That’s because the metal often appears naturally in trace amounts in different kinds of food to begin with — especially those with preservatives or food coloring listed as ingredients. Additionally, small amounts of aluminum are frequently found in tap water. Luckily, your body is perfectly capable of processing those trace amounts of aluminum, and facilitating the exit of those trace amounts through regular bowel movements.
Given the differing studies and expert opinions available, we can’t provide 100% certainty that you should nix aluminum foil from your cooking routine. But at the very least, you just gained a whole handful of great conversation starters for your next neighborhood barbeque. (Though you might want to skip the part about the “bowel movements.”)
Sign up here to jumpstart your mornings with Katie's dynamic daily newsletter, Wake-Up Call.