Holiday Cooking Might be Harmful — But Not in the Way You Expect

Holiday cooking isn’t exactly known for being healthy. From mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving to homemade ginger snaps for Christmas, the end of the year is all about indulgence. You can repent with brown rice and kale come January.

There’s only one problem: the mere act of cooking — no matter how virtuous the meal — might be harming your health. It’s is one of the leading causes of indoor air pollution, creating conditions that might be illegal if found outdoors.

Anyone who spends time thinking about how to cook nourishing food for their families should also learn to prepare that food in a way that preserves indoor air quality.

The Secret Killer in Your Kitchen

Every time you cook, you release a complex cocktail of chemicals into an environment that was not designed to handle it. With nowhere to escape, unsafe levels of nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and other compounds build up in your kitchen, increasing your risk of developing long-term respiratory and heart problems. But since it’s inside your home, there’s no regulation requiring anyone to fix it.

These pollutants are produced in higher concentrations when you cook on a gas stove, but the indoor air pollutants that scientists believe may be most harmful are produced by both gas and electric burners: fine and ultrafine particles. Less than 2.5 and 1 micrometer respectively, they’re small enough to enter the lungs, bloodstream, and other tissues, where they can contribute to serious health conditions.

What’s more, cooking the food itself creates air pollution. Sautéing fats produces a lung irritant called acrolein. And cooking puts off further fine particle pollution than is produced by the burner alone.

What You Can Do

When it comes to indoor air quality, a few small changes can make a big difference. Here are our top tips for ensuring that many benefits of your home cooked meals aren’t canceled out by bad indoor air.

  • Purchase a device to measure your indoor air quality. We built Awair to give people an easy, accessible way to monitor fluctuations of dust, VOCs, and CO2 in their homes and make changes where necessary.
  • Turn on the hood every time you cook, and set the fan to the highest setting. Make sure the hood vents outdoors. If it doesn’t, the hood will simply recirculate air in the kitchen.
  • Clean the grease from your hood and fan often.
  • If the hood does not extend over the front burners, use the back burners. It will make the hood up to twice as effective at removing pollutants.
  • If you’re in the market for a new hood, look for one that covers your front burners and moves at least 200 cubic feet of air per minute.
  • If you don’t have a functioning range hood, at the very least open a window while cooking.