I hear a lot of questions from clients and friends who are concerned about the potential dangers of plastics. Parents of young kids tend to be the most concerned, and for good reason, as developing bodies are more susceptible to chemical exposure. What we hear via various media outlets about plastic food containers is all over the board: plastic water bottles cause breast cancer vs. it’s completely harmless vs. avoid certain types of plastic, etc. This happens to be an area that fascinates me and that I know a lot about…and it can get confusing. I had a chance to study the issues in-depth in my former career as a strategy consultant. For several years I helped a prominent glass company understand the pros/cons of plastics vs. glass in various applications, and in fact chaired a white paper on food containers. While the career didn’t stick (although that particular project, as it pertained to food, was my very favorite), what I learned about plastics sure did.
The chemicals in plastics are no joke. There are very real health dangers, although the level of danger depends on the type of plastic, how you use it, and how susceptible your particular body is. That said, everyone can take a few simple steps to reduce their exposure to the most dangerous chemicals. Here are my top learnings and recommendations regarding plastic food containers. I follow all of these suggestions myself, and while it may seem like a hassle at first, it’s really not so bad. Small changes over time add up, so take it one step at a time.
- Use glass if you can – it’s the safest bet, by far. Glass is more chemically inert than ANY type of plastic, it’s also more heat-resistant, will last forever, and comes in forms that are incredibly break-resistant (tempered glass). Yes, certain plastics are better than others and yes, you can take certain precautions with your plastic, but absolutely nothing will give you the peace of mind that glass will. I have replaced all of my plastic tupperware with glass versions- I got mine at Costco, but you can also find then at Target and other retailers. The glass “tupperware” comes with tight-fitting plastic lids that won’t leak. While they’re heavier than plastic and are more expensive, they can go from freezer to oven or microwave with no problem (sans lid), and will last forever. No dangerous chemical leakage and no erosion o f material. Have you ever noticed that the tupperwares you used for tomato sauce get stained pink? That’s because the acid in the tomato is eating into the plastic. It’s DISSOLVING the plastic into your food, literally. That will not happen in glass. Ceramic is another excellent material, and I use glass or ceramic for all of my mixing bowls, glasses/mugs, and serving containers.
- Realistically we can’t avoid plastic food containers all the time, even I use convenience foods packaged in plastic sometimes. But there are certain plastics I absolutely avoid – these include Polycarbonate (PC, or #7), Polystyrene (PS, or #6), and Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or #3), commonly known as vinyl. These are the most dangerous, and a quick google search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about how nasty the chemicals in these plastics can be. They are either neurotoxins (can cause neurological damage), endocrine disruptors ( meaning they mimic hormones in the body), or carcinogens (cause cancer). For more info on these plastics read the following sub-sections. Sorry it’s kind of long, but there’s just a lot of info to share here.
- Polycarbonate is the hard, brittle and clear plastic that is used in many water bottles including water cooler containers. It is also used for baby bottles, although many manufacturers are now making BPA-free versions. ( BPA is the dangerous endocrine-disruptor in PC, and it’s particularly dangerous to young children whose little bodies are still developing. These chemicals are actually causing male fish to become hemaphrodites in highly-exposed waters.) HOWEVER, most of us get our largest exposure to BPA via canned food, because BPA is used in the epoxy on can lids (look at the lid the next time you open a can – see that yellowish coating on the inside? That contains BPA, and it leaches into the canned food. A recent study found that canned green beans are the most highly contaminated. It’s been tough for food manufacturers to find a suitable replacement, but Eden Foods is making some headway.) BPA, by the way, has been found in the cord blood of 9/10 infants, and 93% of all adults. I use canned tomatoes far more than any other canned product, and there aren’t many good alternatives at the moment, although at least one manufacturer in the UK is now using tetra packs for their tomatoes, a trend that will hopefully catch on.
- Polystyrene can take a few forms. It’s also a hard and brittle plastic in some applications, such as frozen food containers, although it’s also the material used in styrofoam. Ironically this plastic is most dangerous when heated, as it will release toxic vapors. If you’re wondering why manufacturers use it for heat-sensitive applications it’s pretty straight forward: it’s a good insulator (in foam form), and it’s CHEAP – one of the cheapest plastics and it will hold up just long enough to withstand some heating (physically, not necessarily chemically). My recommendation is to completely avoid styrofoam, and if you buy any food with a PS or #6 on the bottom, absolutely do not heat it up. Transfer the food to another container for heating.
- PVC is probably the worst offender of them all, and is known as the poison plastic. PVC has been known for its health dangers for a very long time. Not only is it dangerous for consumers, but it’s incredibly dangerous for factory workers who manufacture it. What makes PVC dangerous are the phthalates that are added to it to make it flexible, as well as dioxins that are a by-product of the production process. Again – the health dangers include endocrine disruption, associations with cancer, and there are even associations with allergies in children. PVC isn’t used in a lot of food containers, but it is used widely in plasic wrap. Buy PVC-free plastic wrap, and DO NOT microwave plastic wrap. If you want to look more into how to avoid PVC there are a lot of resources available to help you understand where its used and how to eliminate it. Kids toys, shower curtains, and pipes are three common sources of PVC. You don’t want kids sucking on PVC, believe me – in fact is some european countries PVC and/or some of its phthalates have been banned, and California is considering bans of its own.
- All plastics are most likely to leach chemicals when they’re heated. Plastic in general is very sensitive to heat, which is why you can’t put it in the oven (most can’t withstand 300-400 degrees -they’ll melt). But something happens before it actually melts -it starts to lose its stability and degrade/leach chemicals, especially if it has a nice liquid nearby to leach them into. I never put plastic into the microwave that is actually touching food (and never put any of the above 3 plastics in the microwave at all). Transfer to glass or ceramic first, and cover with a ceramic plate or paper towel. And, most plastics will say not to put them in the bottom row of the dishwasher, where it’s hottest. To be extra safe just wash by hand, or even better, use glass containers.
- Fat and plastic chemicals get along like peas and carrots. The dangerous chemicals in plastics tend to be lipophilic, meaning they love to attach themselves to fat – they’re attracted to it. Full-fat yogurt, for example, will leach more chemicals out of a plastic container than fat-free. Heat it up and you’ve got an even larger chemical transfer going on. I avoid buying high-fat food items in plastic – for me that means mostly oils and dairy. Paper-based containers and glass are a better bet. Likewise, avoid storing and heating high-fat items in plastic containers.
I know this can be a lot to take in, but again, baby steps in the right direction can really pay off.