Purge Plastics for Better Food Safety

Reduce your intake of potentially harmful chemicals by getting your food off its plastic dependency.

  • Reusing single-use PET plastic bottles can cause a buildup of bacteria in the threads around the cap.
    Photo By iStockphoto
  • Many plastic food storage containers can leach chemicals into food. Up your home's food safety by switching to glass containers.
    Photo By Corbis

Look around your kitchen. If you are like most of us, you're likely to find plastic just about everywhere. In your cabinets, plastic food-storage containers and utensils. In your pantry, canned foods lined with plastic. In your fridge, plastic butter tubs and salad containers. Plastic is pervasive in our world, yet a variety of sources have confirmed the potential hazards of ingesting the chemicals that can leach from plastic products. Nowhere is that risk more direct than when the food we eat comes into direct contact with plastic. But don't panic. Although plastic is ubiquitous, learning a bit about the most dangerous types and replacing plastic with practical, easy-to-find alternatives will keep you and your family safe.

Know Your Plastics

The first step toward increasing food safety is to understand the differences in plastic types. While the safest approach is to avoid the interaction of food and plastic whenever possible, at the very least, we want to make sure to avoid the plastics that studies reveal are the most hazardous. To determine what type of plastic you're dealing with, turn over any plastic container and look for the recycling code on the bottom. The plastics with the greatest potential for negative health effects are #3, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and #7, polycarbonate (PC) or "other." Safer plastics for food storage include #2, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the plastic used for opaque milk jugs and cereal box liners; #4, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), the plastic used in plastic wrap and sandwich bags; and #5, polypropylene (PP), the plastic used in yogurt and margarine tubs.

PVC plastic is marked with recycling code #3. Often used in the plastic used to wrap meats and cheeses, "cling-wrap" style plastic wrap and cooking oil bottles, as well as toys, plumbing pipes and insulation, PVC is known as the "toxic plastic." The most potentially hazardous elements of PVC are the plasticizers used to help make the product flexible, notably phthalates and adipates. Traces of these chemicals are known to leach into foods stored in PVC. In animal studies, phthalates interfere with the production of male reproductive hormones, lower testosterone levels and decrease sperm counts. Exposure during fetal development can cause malformation of the male reproductive tract as well as cancer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). To avoid PVC, ask your grocery-store butcher to cut meat and wrap it in paper. When choosing cheeses, opt for those in zip-closure-style bags rather than shrink-wrapped cheeses. If you use plastic wrap in your kitchen, make sure to buy those made of safer #4, or LDPE, plastic.

Plastic marked #7 fits into the broad category of "other," but the majority of it is polycarbonate (PC) or polylactide (PLA). PLA plastic is a compostable plastic, but PC plastic contains bisphenol-A (BPA), a potent endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen in the body and has been linked in animal studies to health problems ranging from behavioral disorders and obesity to reproductive system damage and increased cancer risk. BPA is ubiquitous in the United States. Up until recently, one of its most common uses here was in baby bottles and children's sippy cups, despite the fact that children's developing systems are more at risk for harm from this chemical than adult systems. But last July, the FDA banned the use of BPA in children's bottles and sippy cups. BPA is still found in the plastic lining of canned foods, where it is at high risk of leaching into foods—particularly those that are acidic or canned in liquid. Organic products don't necessarily contain less BPA than conventional canned foods. Eden Organics is one of few U.S. brands that offers canned goods in BPA-free cans.

Although PET or PETE plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, recycling code #1) is commonly used to create beverage containers and is generally considered safer than #3 or #7, it too may potentially leach chemicals. Studies have also found that reusing single-use PET bottles (standard plastic water bottles) can cause the plastic to break down and allow bacteria to build up in threads for the cap.

Plastic marked #6 is polystyrene (PS), more commonly known as Styrofoam. Its health impacts are not as severe as in #3 and #7, but do include eye, nose and throat irritation. More important, PS is a major contributor to marine pollution because it floats and can take up to 50 years to break down. It has also been shown to cause cancer in production workers.

Wendy Sternberg
1/31/2013 4:19:11 AM

Ditto Mr. Ogilvie

Shirley Moore
11/13/2012 4:57:25 PM

This is something we should all be aware of especially for our future generations.

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