What you need to know about plastics and your food

Photo: istockphoto.com/Louis Aguinaldo
There's no denying that plastic containers and water bottles make life easier. But is it dangerous to combine plastic and food? Reason for concern Both the FDA and Health Canada warns that using plastic containers and wrap for anything than their original purpose can cause health problems. In most cases this means not reusing plastic containers or water bottles. The main concern is with food becoming contaminated due to leakage of the chemicals used to manufacture plastic, especially when the plastic is heated or damaged. Depending on the type, plastics can contain bisphenol A (BPA), di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), di-2-ethylhexyl-adipate (DEHA) or polyvinyl chloride/PVC. While none of these chemicals are healthy for us, BPA is proving to be highly toxic, linked to different cancers along with endocrine and hormone disruption. H20 and plastic Most plastic water bottles are intended for one time use only and will not hold up to everyday wear or being washed in hot water. The most popular brands use #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET). PET is often touted as the guilt-free plastic because it's recyclable. But according to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States ends up in a landfill or becomes litter. Water bottles made from #3 polyvinyl chloride/PVC are even worse. This plastic easily leaks BPA, DEHP and DEHA chemicals when heated, washed or exposed to acidic foods. Hard plastic bottles, such as the coloured Nalgene Lexan sports bottles, made from #7 plastic (polycarbonate), can also leak BPA, especially if scratched or put through the dishwasher. Aluminum bottles, such as those made by SIGG or stainless steel water bottles, like the ones created by Klean Kanteen, are considered safer alternatives. Re-usable plastic containers Disposable plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives), cups and containers (cottage cheese, sour cream, chip dip, margarine, milk) should never be used again since they will start to break down almost immediately. Avoid any containers made with #6 polystyrene since it leaks styrene, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, confusion and drowsiness. The safest containers are made from #2 High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), #4 low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or #5 polypropylene (PP). Always let food cool before storing it into plastic containers and throw out any visibly damaged, stained or unpleasant smelling containers. If you have concerns store your food in glass or ceramic containers. Plastics and the microwave Never use plastic bowls or wrap in the microwave unless labeled as microwave safe. This label means the plastic can withstand high temperatures without melting, warping or leaking chemicals. If neither the item nor the package is marked, it's best to use a different container. If you are at all concerned then use wax paper to cover the food or use microwave safe ceramics or glass. The Harvard Medical School makes the following recommendations for using plastic in the microwave to heat food:
  • Most takeout containers, water bottles, and plastic tubs or jars made to hold margarine, yogurt, whipped topping, and foods such as cream cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard are not microwave-safe.
  • Microwavable takeout dinner trays are formulated for one-time use only and will say so on the package.
  • Don't microwave plastic storage bags or plastic bags from the grocery store.
  • Before microwaving food, be sure to vent the container: Leave the lid ajar, or lift the edge of the cover.
  • Don't allow plastic wrap to touch food during microwaving because it may melt. Wax paper, kitchen parchment paper, or white paper towels are alternatives.
  • If you're concerned about plastic wraps or containers in the microwave, transfer food to glass or ceramic.