We all love those family dinners served in beautifully, handcrafted dishware. They add a special touch to our meals and make the experience even homier. Many of us use dishware that has been in our families for many generations. These delicately patterned dishes that our granny passed down to our moms, and are now proudly displayed in our homes could, unbeknownst to us, be a hazard to our health.
Pottery is made of clay and other natural materials; and for the better part of human civilization, it owed that attractive glossy finish to lead-and cadmium-ridden paint and glaze.
This is not the case anymore. Paints and glazes are now heavily regulated for lead and cadmium content, especially those that will be directly in contact with food.
However, as the saying goes, it is always better to be safe than sorry. That’s why it is necessary to make sure you know all your pottery dishware is food-safe. But how to tell if pottery is food safe?
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closely monitors trace amounts of lead and cadmium in crockery. Makers must guarantee their products never go above a set safety standard, to be allowed to sell their products in the US. These pieces are categorized as cadmium and lead-safe.
You probably noticed that it doesn’t say lead-free but lead-safe, and there is a reason for that. Even if all the materials used to make pottery are lead- and cadmium-free, there is always a teeny-bit chance for naturally occurring heavy metals to be present in trace amounts.
So, as you can see, there is no such thing as 100% lead-free earthenware.
That being said, you can certainly find pottery that is non-toxic and perfectly safe to use.
How to tell if pottery is food safe?
The term “food-safe” has two components: the fired glaze finishing of the ceramic pieces and the amount of heavy metals that have the potential to leak into your food if the glaze coating is broken.
The FDA carries leach testing to classify pottery dishware as food safe. Even if the glazed contained lead or cadmium before firing the piece, it can still be marked as food safe if it meets the FDA standards.
It’s important to note that food-safe and non-toxic are two different features of crockery and are not interchangeable. While food-safe refers to the post-baking state of pottery, non-toxic refers to the product in its pre-fire state.
Here are some things you can look out for when purchasing your home’s pottery dishware.
Always check the labels
Be sure to check the items for labels warning whether they are or aren’t safe to use with food or drinks.
The FDA requires that unsafe ceramic pieces have a conspicuous stick-on label or permanent statement that warns consumers about it.
The older the piece, the higher the chances it has hazardous amounts of lead
If you buy antique or handmade ceramics, especially those crafted before the 70s, they might have hazardous lead residues.
Be also wary of antique pieces handed down from generation to generation and those found in flea markets.
Old, bright-colored pottery in shades of yellow, red, and orange are more likely to have high amounts of lead. The heavy metal used to be added to make the colors brighter.
When in doubt, test your pottery
You can buy a lead testing kit to check your crockery. These kits are usually sold in hardware stores, and you can easily apply them on your favorite items to make sure they are safe to use.
We wanted to make sure our products were FDA and California 65 proposition compliant and click here to view the results.
Watch out for imported pottery
You should particularly be wary of imported ceramics. This is especially true if they come from South America or Asia, and if they display particularly colorful and bright designs.
As we explained before, lead makes the paint and glazing brighter and give ceramic products that glossy finish we all love. Even if they are no longer used in the U.S., they might still do so in countries where regulations are lax.
However, you don’t have to test everything. What is one easy way how to tell if pottery is food safe? Plain white dishes rarely test positive for lead.
Why the decorations matter
Make sure decorations on any items you purchase are beneath the glaze and not on top of it.
How can you check this? Run your fingers over the surface. If you can feel the decorations or if you can see that they are rough or raised, there might be a problem. When these decorations begin to wear away, they can pose a higher risk of leaching.
If you are still unsure, ask the store if the dishware you are planning to buy is compliant with FDA regulations. They should have this information available to you.
Other characteristics that make pottery food safe
Besides being lead-safe, there are other things to consider when buying food-safe pottery. These include being chip-resistant, microwave-safe, oven-safe, and dishwasher-safe. These features make the pieces very durable, and the glaze won’t break or crack easily, minimizing the potential for lead exposure.
Reducing your family’s exposure to lead from ceramic cook- and dishware
When food-safe ceramic dishware is used normally, the probability of food being exposed to these heavy metals is extremely low. But, if acidic foods are stored for long periods in porous containers, the amount of dangerous substances leaching into the food can reach harmful levels.
A good way to minimize exposure is not to use pottery that you are unsure about.
As you are determining how to tell if pottery is food safe, if you don’t know if a piece is food-safe, your best bet is not to use it for everyday meals or drinks. This is particularly important for children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women, as they are more susceptible to the consequences of lead poisoning.
Buying pottery made in the country is another way to ensure it’s compliant with FDA regulations.
If you want to feel even safer, buy ceramics that is compliant with California Proposition 65. The Golden State has gone above and beyond by establishing the strictest regulation when it comes to ceramic serveware.
Don’t use items that might have a high leaching potential to heat food or drinks. Heat exposure, be it via microwave or stove, accelerates the leaching process.
Don’t use the dishwasher unless you are sure it is dishwasher-safe. The machine could damage the glazed surface and increase the probability of leaching. It can also cause cross-contamination of other dishware.
Don’t store food or drinks for long periods in ceramic containers, especially if what you are saving is acidic. Some examples of acidic food include tomatoes, citrus fruits, apples, soy sauce, fruit juices, soft drinks, coffee, tea, and alcoholic drinks.
Never use crockery with corroded glaze or if you notice a greyish residue on the glaze after washing it. These damages increase the probability of the heavy metal leaching into your food.
As long as you are careful to buy food-safe pottery, the risks of lead or cadmium exposure are minimal to non-existent. At Emerson Creek Pottery, our dishware is food safe, which means lead-safe and non-toxic. Because we know that your family’s well-being is above all else, we leave the lead out of all of our clays, paints, and glazes, and make sure all our finished pieces are compliant with California Proposition 65.
Choose your pottery dishware well. This way, you can enjoy a lovely table setting that gives that unique feel to any meal without worrying about it being hazardous. You can always use the pieces you are unsure of as ornaments in your home.