Grill mats can be a real food saver. Aside from minimizing clean-up and losing bits of meat, fish, or veggies through the grills, the uniform surface of grill mats ensures that your food is cooked evenly.
They’re also great for grilling delicate foods such as salmon, scallops, shrimp, or small vegetables. Plus, due to their non-stick nature, it’ll allow you to use less oil.
There’s virtually nothing to hate when it comes to grill mats, but a burning question remains: are grill mats safe? And what are the potential grill mat health risks, if any? After all, they have almost a plastic-like look to them and they’re used at scorching temperatures.
The truth is, grill mats are generally safe. But only when used properly.
Read on to find out more about what makes grill mats potentially toxic, and the health risks that may come when using them.
What Are Grill Mats Made From?
Typically made from fiberglass cloth, grill mats are thin sheets that are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is the same material that’s used in nonstick pans and Teflon cookware, and is now FDA approved and deemed non-toxic.
However, misuse can make them harmful. It’s said that PTFE-coated grill mats may release toxic fumes at high temperatures.
The safety of Teflon cookware has been debated for years. But all studies find that the real danger comes from a chemical foundation called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is oftentimes used in the process of making PTFE.
What Is Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)?
PFOA, also known as C8, acts as a catalyst used in preparing fluoropolymers like PTFE and is the primary fountain of non-stick kitchen tools.
However, according to T-Fal, a well known French cookware and small appliance manufacturer, PFOA is gradually burned off during the creation process and only an innocuous amount remains in the finished product.
PFOA is considered a pollutant and has the potential to be a health concern as it could remain in the human body for a long time.
Under the stewardship of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2003, PFOA was deemed to be a toxic substance. Subsequently, the EPA asked all major cookware companies to cease the use of PFOA in their products.
Due to this, most of the reputable non-stick coating manufacturers make sure to avoid PFOA at all costs. You’ll often find labels that say “PFOA-free”; this means that the chemical wasn’t used in the manufacturing process of that non-stick kitchen cookware.
What Are the Health Risks of PFOA?
According to experts, increased exposure of PFOA may cause certain cancers and increase the risk of tumors. Primarily in the liver, testicles, breasts, and pancreas.
But even before the elimination of PFOA, non-stick cookware isn’t a significant source of PFOA exposure as it’s mostly burned off in the manufacturing process or is present in extremely small amounts. So the connection between cancer and tumor risks is all simply speculation.
The long-term effects of PFOA and similar chemicals are largely unknown, and experts say that the risk of cancer and tumors directly because of PFOA only happens when there’s an incredible amount of exposure.
As all Teflon products are PFOA-free, the major health risks of PFOA exposure are no longer a huge cause for concern.
Grill mats are considered to be as safe as Teflon pans. There is no inherent danger when using them, but like most products, they do come with minute risks. Consequently, the concept of safe nonstick cookware has more to do with practice and use, than with the specific materials the pans are made from.
One notable health risk due to unsafe practice is flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan. This is called polymer fume fever.
Polymer Fume Fever
Polymer fume fever, also known as Teflon fever, consists of temporary, flu-like symptoms that include chills, fever, body aches, and headaches. Symptoms occur after 4 to 10 hours of exposure.
Those who have experienced this fever, however, dramatically improve within the following 12-48 hours. With all the cases that were studied, the individuals who were affected were exposed to fumes caused by overcooked Teflon at extreme temperatures of at least 730°F, for a period of at least four hours.
Polymer fume fever is a relatively rare disease, and is normally treated with oxygen inhalation under close observation.
Non-Stick Grill Mats: How To Keep Yourself Safe
A perfectly safe grill mat may turn toxic if not handled correctly. Two of the most important factors to a grill mat’s safety are heat and friction.
In general, overheating cookware creates toxic fumes. This doesn’t only happen with cookware coated with PTFE and/or PFOA; fumes may appear even when overheating aluminum, cast iron, silicon, and ceramic cookware.
Your grill mat should specifically state how high of a temperature it’s safe to use at. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, and you’ll be just fine.
Maximum Heat Capacity of Nonstick Cookware
Although PTFE is extremely stable and resistant to even the harshest chemicals, it all changes when faced with temperatures above 500°F.
Nonstick grill mats go through the same process any other material does at its melting point; based on temperature fluctuations, substances may change from solid to liquid and from liquid to gas.
Now, this is when things get a little bit complicated for grill users. PTFE deteriorates above temperatures of 500°F, and decomposes at 662°F, deeming it unusable and entirely toxic.
This means that the difference between safe and toxic is only a matter of a few degrees.
So despite it being created to aid grilling, you can’t and shouldn’t put a grilling mat directly over an open fire as it’s difficult to control the temperature of the grill.
Doing so will immediately melt through and destroy the mat, and will cause chemicals to be mixed directly into your food.
But not all manufacturing processes use materials that are a concern. Some grill mats are hard-anodized, and other ceramic-based nonstick coatings, such as Thermolon, emit no such chemicals even after reaching high temperatures.
Be that as it may, traditional grilling often comes between 150 degrees Fahrenheit and 375 degrees Fahrenheit, so there’s little risk of burning the grilling mat.
But if your grill mat doesn’t come with full specifications to ensure it meets safety guidelines, it’s better to only use them on low heat settings.
As little friction as possible must be used on the mat’s cooking surface, as it will scratch and weaken the integrity of the nonstick coating. Whether it be while cooking or cleaning, certain rules must be followed.
Using the Appropriate Tools
Using the incorrect tool will damage the coating of your grilling mat. Some metallic utensils have rough or sharp edges, which can damage your nonstick cookware.
Because of this, always use plastic, wooden or rubber utensils during cooking to maximize the life of any non-stick cookware you own.
With pans, for instance, you can instead toss the food instead of using a tool to still the contents. For grill mats, it’s best if you use tongs rather than spatulas, even if spatulas are mostly made of rubber.
The following are the best tools you can use for cookware with a nonstick surface:
- Heat resistant plastic tools with no rough edges
- Wooden cooking spoons with rounded edges
- Silicone utensils and spatulas
- Nylon kitchen utensils
Cooking With Your Grill Matt
Along with the right cooking tools, you also need to apply the right cooking technique when using your grill mat.
As mentioned, as little friction as possible is needed to ensure the long life of your grill mat. It’s best to prepare simple foods on your BBQ, and constantly keep them moving instead of letting them sit on the surface and cook.
Depending on how often you use your non-stick grill mat, it may last for up to 2 – 3 years. Some companies, like Kona, make grill mats with extra layers of PTFE. Although slightly more expensive, it might be a good investment especially if you’re planning to use the grill mat often.
Cleaning Your Grill Matt
Just like cleaning your grill, you should be cleaning your grill mat. One of the biggest selling points of non-stick products is that it’s easy to clean.
Here are some tips to safely clean a grill mat:
- Always wash your mats immediately after use.
- Don’t use steel wool, scouring pads, or harsh chlorine detergents as they may scratch and penetrate the surface of the grilling mat.
- If there’s tough residue, soak the mats in soapy water for about an hour or longer before wiping them clean with a microfiber cloth, paper towel, or cotton towel.
- Nylon-scrubbing pads are ideal for cleaning grill mats.
- If your grill mat is dishwasher safe (most are), put the mats on the top rack of your dishwasher and run it on hot to remove any stubborn residues.
Should your non-stick grill mat start to peel or get heavily scratched or damaged, discontinue the use of the mat to avoid pieces of the coating from being transferred to food.
Storing Your Grill Mat
Quality grill mats don’t come cheap, so you need to keep your investment safe even while storing it.
Careless storage is one of the primary causes of premature aging in non-stick cookware, so you’ll need to treat mats with care in order for them to keep delivering great results for years to come.
When storing nonstick cookware, avoid stacking them on top of each other as it may cause scratches that are detrimental to their lifespan.
Before putting them away, make sure they’re clean and moisture free to avoid rusting. You’ll also find cookware and bakeware storage options that allow minimal contact with the nonstick coating.
Other Safety Precautions When Cooking With Nonstick Cookware
Cooking with nonstick cookware is safe, healthy, and overall highly convenient. Follow these tips to minimize health risks while cooking with PTFE coated products.
- Avoid preheating an empty pan as it can reach high temperatures within minutes
- As much as possible, avoid cooking on high heat.
- Turn your exhaust fan or windows while cooking to help clear fumes
- Don’t use cooking spray as it burns at lower temperatures and may cause the nonstick coating of the cookware to melt.
- Don’t store food in non-stick cookware.
- Replace old cookware especially if it contains excessive scratches, peeling, flaking, and chipping.
Are Grill Mats Safe? The Bottom Line
Are grill mats safe? Yes, but only if used safely.
Grill mats are great BBQ tools. They retain the moisture in your food, cook it more evenly, and even allow you to make breakfast on your grill! Grilled hash browns, eggs, and bacon. How about pancakes? Yum! Without grill mats, this isn’t possible.
As long as you’re careful and follow precautionary measures while using your mat, there won’t be a cause of concern while using them.