About a year ago I was introduced to the non-stick grill mat for the first time. Being a traditionalist I thought it was a silly flash-in-the-pan product for which there is really no need that would eventually go the way of the snuggie. Besides, how much better could it really be than just grilling on the grates? Well, I can say that it left virtually no mess on the grill after a healthy serving of a variety grilled chicken wings and, to my surprise, they had a nice sear. I was impressed.
Flash forward to this past week when a friend of mine was using one in the oven over his cookie sheet to bake some delicious croissants and I was again impressed with what these little mats can do. But as I sat their marveling at the technological culinary march of man, I began to wonder "What are these things made of and do they produce any kind of toxic by-product when they are heated?" It was time to do some investigating...
It turns out that there are a number of brands of these grill mats online like Miracle Grill Mat, & Kona that are all “constructed of the same materials – fiberglass cloth and some version of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).” according to bbqgrillmats.com. After a little more investigating it turns out that PTFE is the generic name for Teflon, the brand name from Chemours that we are all so familiar with. Knowing about possible toxic effects of Teflon coated cookware I decided to go deeper.
I came across a few internet articles from those everything-is-going-to-kill-you websites bespouting the horrifying toxic effects of Teflon but with a discerning eye one can see that these articles are flawed and nothing more than click bait. They make no distinction between the toxic effects of PTFE (Teflon) and a chemical that is sometimes used to make PTFE, Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA.
PFOA is much more toxic and is associated with a litany of diseases but most manufacturers have done away with its' use during production due to these risks and most of these mats claim to be PFOA-free. However, the caveat is that PTFE does produce some toxic effects of its own at high temperatures.
According to this article, PTFE "begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F), and decomposes above 350 °C (662 °F)." That is when it produces an odorless and colorless gas that can cause a flu-like condition known as polymer fume fever that can last for a few days if there is enough exposure. These gases have also been shown to do quite a number on birds, causing deaths in a number of studies.
Now temperature is easily controlled in most ovens and most cooking takes place well below 500 degrees but on a grill it is quite a different story. Some grills come with built in thermometers that can give you a rough idea of the temperature inside the lid but the grates and the occasional flame-up can be much hotter. According to this article on flame temperatures, charcoal flames range from 1382-2192 °F, and natural gas flames range from 1652-2732 °F, so grilling your food close to the flames or even having the flames licking at your grill mat could potentially cause some harm.
Overall I would say the verdict is that they are reasonably safe as long as you are cooking in an oven but I would advise against using them on the grill. Using steel or cast iron grill grates is still the safest way to bbq those wings even if there is a little clean up afterwards. Besides, a few seconds of scrubbing will burn a few extra calories!