Addressing the concerns over plastic, what to use instead and how to use plastic correctly
Food storage containers are like socks and underwear. For most of us, there are so many more fun and exciting things we’d rather buy. The fact of the matter though is that these containers are some of the most used, most important parts of our kitchen and our everyday lives. If we don’t give them the thought they deserve, they could be causing us a lot of harm. How? Because the plastic storage containers, baggies and plastic wraps that most of us grew up with might be leaching chemicals that are proven endocrine-disruptors1 into our food if not used exactly right, and let’s face it, most of us aren’t using them exactly right.
This is a topic I don’t take lightly because I know I’m behind the curve in addressing this issue in my own kitchen. While we are transitioning to safer products, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. That’s why I turned to the mountains of research available out there and to chef, nutritionist and award-winning cookbook author Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN for guidance for us all. As a topic that she’s well-versed in, she steers us in the right direction when it comes to safe food storage containers, and if we do use plastic, how to use it correctly.
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Confusion Over Plastic for Food Storage
Before we get to Jackie’s look at how we can store our food safely, it’s important to give a little background on why there’s so much confusion and concern over using plastic for food storage. Most of us are familiar with the concerns over Bisphenol A (BPA) in bottles of water, but other plastic food containers have chemicals that can leach into food if those containers aren’t used properly. The problem is, there’s a lot of confusion and variation on what “used properly” means. For many products, this means they shouldn’t be heated in the microwave or washed in the dishwasher. For others, it’s that food should be at room temperature or cooler before being put into the containers.
More confusion and concern stem from the fact that there are plenty of studies and reports with conflicting results when it comes to how harmful the chemicals in plastic food storage containers really are and at what levels they’re proving to be harmful. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is waiting on the final report from a comprehensive two-year rodent study examining the potential effects of BPA on health to be published in the future, it released a statement earlier this year saying, “Overall, the study found ‘minimal effects’ for the BPA-dosed groups of rodents.” But what are minimal effects, and do we really want any effects at all?
Despite the FDA’s repeated assurances about the safety of BPA in food packaging (although it did ban BPA in baby bottles in 2012), many companies have responded to public concern in recent years and made their products “BPA free.” As a result though, some of the chemicals that replaced BPA such as phthalates and Bisphenol S (BPS) are also being called into question as endocrine-disruptors that are as potentially harmful as BPA.2,3, 4 Because of that, companies are pushing harder to come up with safer alternatives, but how do we know what’s really safe and what’s not? That’s where Jackie Newgent’s advice comes in.
Safe Food Storage Containers
Peppermint Tea & Me: With all of the awareness about BPA and other chemicals leaking into our food through plastics in the past, how safe do you think plastic food storage containers are now?
Jackie Newgent: More environmentally-conscious plastic food storage containers are available now than even just a year ago, but you do still need to choose wisely. I do still suggest using plastic food storage containers only for cold or dry storage, not for hot foods.
PTM:What if a plastic container doesn’t specifically say it’s BPA-free. How can we determine whether it should be safe to use?
JN: If you don’t see the BPA-free term on the packaging of a plastic container, do watch out for the recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” on the container itself. These numbers are an indicator that it has the potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols, respectively. To help me remember this, I use the motto, “Nix the 3, 7, 6.”
If the container is “Greenware” or “biobased”, it’s okay since it’s made using a plant starch, such as corn.
Note: The codes Jackie mentioned can be found on the bottom of plastic containers. It’s a triangle with a number in the middle.
PTM: Some companies say their plastic containers are safe for the microwave. Do you consider plastic containers ever to be safe for the microwave?
JN: I don’t advise microwaving plastic containers, period. Even if BPA-free or dioxin-free, for instance, heat can cause the leaching of chemicals, in general, into food. That said, I advise not cleaning them in the dishwasher either.
PTM: When is it safe to use plastic storage containers for food?
JN: Generally speaking, when a food is at room temperature or colder, it should OK to store it in a plastic container.
PTM: Do you believe plastic baggies and plastic wrap are safe to use?
JN: If you can use an alternative, like glass, stainless steel, unbleached parchment paper, or an eco-wrap, I strongly advise using those instead of plastics. But if you do use plastic zip bags or wraps, only use them when a food is at room temperature or colder.
PTM: Why are glass storage containers considered to be better for food than plastic?
JN: Simply put, when using glass, you don’t need to be concerned about leaking of chemicals into foods. However, do know the lids of some glass storage containers may still contain harmful chemicals.
Note: To avoid chemicals from plastic lids coming into contact with your food as much as possible, do not heat glass containers with a plastic lid still sitting even loosely on top (usually done to prevent splatter), don’t put the lid on the container until the food has reached room temperature and try not to fill the container so full that the food is touching the lid.
PTM: Are there any brands or resources that you would recommend for someone trying to get plastic food containers out of their kitchen?
Note: Stainless steel lunch boxes are a good alternative to plastic baggies. One thing to keep in mind if investing in lunch container options like this seem too pricey, if you’re using baggies for lunch every day, you could be spending anywhere between $5-$10 per month just on baggies. Lunch containers are reusable, baggies are not.
PTM: Many of the foods we buy in the grocery store come in some type of plastic packaging. Should we be worried about these and try to only buy foods that come in glass containers?
JN: Even with food storage, you can drive yourself silly if you always aim for perfection. So, I suggest that as long as you do all you can at home to keep your food as safe as possible, give yourself a little leeway when buying healthy foods for yourself or family, even if they’re packaged with some plastic. I call that “finding your ‘sustainable sweet spot’.”
PTM: Do you use plastic food containers in your kitchen? Why or why not?
JN:I stick almost exclusively with glass storage containers, not plastic. It’s just the smart thing to do.
Clearly purging your kitchen of every plastic food container at one time may not be a choice, but as we’ve seen here, transitioning to other types of containers over time is probably our safest option. Breast cancer survivor Susan Leonard recently told me that she didn’t need to see that all the evidence was conclusive. As she’s taking steps to make her home and life healthier, heating any type of plastic in the microwave was one of the first things to go. Isn’t the same true for all of us? While all the evidence may not be pointing to exactly the same spot, it is pointing in the same general direction. Plastic food storage containers should be eliminated as much as possible, and if we are going to use them, we need to use them in the way Jackie Newgent advises. I for one, will be speeding up my transition to other types of containers. Buying new food storage containers may not be as fun as something else, but it certainly seems to be a worthwhile investment in my family’s long-term health and wellbeing.
- Bisphenol A: an endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects
- Phtalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data
- Bisphenol S Induces Adipogenesis in Primary Human Preadipocytes From Female Donors
- Bisphenol S and F: A Systematic Review and Comparison of the Hormonal Activity of Bisphenol A Substitutes