By Kim Robson:
Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of silicone bakeware products on the market. The advantage of silicone bakeware is that it’s nonstick and easy to clean, at least more so than other traditional types of bakeware. Muffin cups, bread pans, baking mats and egg poachers are among the more popular items. Their soft flexibility makes popping out baked goods easy, too. They’re also dishwasher safe, petroleum free, and are not supposed to fade or scratch.
So, what is silicone, exactly, and is it really safe to cook with? Silicone is a synthetic polymer made by combining two silicon atoms and one oxygen atom, and is frequently combined with carbon and/or hydrogen. Don’t confuse silicone with silicon or silica. Let’s review the differences:
- Silicon is an element (atomic #14), the eighth most abundant element in the universe. When it bonds with oxygen, silicon creates minerals called silicates (like quartz, olivine, micas, thomsonite, jadeite, and prehnite).
- Silica is a compound made of silicon and some other element. Silica is present in the human body in high amounts, and emerging research suggests it can be beneficial for health.
- Silicone is a synthetic polymer, typically heat-resistant and with a rubbery texture. It’s used in sealants, adhesives, lubricants, medical devices, cooking utensils, and thermal and electrical insulation. It can exist as a solid, liquid or gel, and is generally considered safe.
Bakeware made from silicone, the synthetic polymer, is generally considered inert, and is FDA approved as a “food-safe substance.” Despite FDA approval, there hasn’t been much research on silicone bakeware or molds; so while there isn’t any evidence that it is harmful, there also isn’t much evidence that it is safe.
Laboratory testing has shown that medical-grade silicone, without fillers or additives, is safe at room temperature and body temperature. Data from long-term follow-up studies support this. However, silicone’s safety at high temperatures has not been tested adequately: this is where danger may possibly lie.
Technically, silicone bakeware is rated for temperatures from below freezing up to 450°Fahrenheit, so it’s safe in theory. However, some potential dangers in silicone bakeware may include
- Possible leaching at high temperatures
- Fillers, additives and colors added to lower quality silicone
- Possible odors emitted at high temperatures
These possible dangers have not been adequately studied and bear further investigation. Ultimately, silicone cooking products are quite safe at low temperatures and in the refrigerator or freezer, but for now, avoid using it for baking or high temperature uses. For low temperature applications, silicone is much safer than plastic, which can leach chemicals into your food. If you choose to use silicone molds or bakeware for high temperature use, make sure it is of the highest quality and does not contain fillers or chemical additives.