It’s been a few too many hours since breakfast and you can’t stop your mouth from watering as you reach into the refrigerator and pull out a container that’s packed with delicious goodness for your lunch. You lift the lid and pop it in the microwave while you contemplate what you’re going to drink with your mid-day meal, not giving a second thought to how the plastic food container, that’s now rotating around in the microwave, might be damaging to your health.
This is a scene that occurs every day in countless kitchens and break rooms across the United States. Plastic food storage containers have been the standard go-to for decades, and during most of this time, they have been accepted as being generally safe.
But as times change, we learn more and we have the opportunity to do better. Today, we have the advantage of a great amount of information that allows us to make better-informed choices about the materials we choose for food storage. It turns out that plastic isn’t the gold-standard that we once thought it was. If you’re still using plastic, here are a few things you might want to consider.
An End to the Age of Tupperware
If you’re like most people, you probably grew up with Tupperware or Rubbermaid containers lining the shelves of your refrigerator. If not, maybe you recall your parents reusing large margarine tubs for storing leftovers or sending food home with relatives on Thanksgiving. At the time, anything that would hold food was fair game – bonus points if it had a lid.
Today, the scene in many refrigerators is quite different. Thanks to science, we now know that many of the chemicals used in the production of plastic are toxic and pose risks to human health.
It all started several years ago with an awareness of BPA and the dangers that it presented when used in containers that were designed to hold food or beverages – such as baby bottles, sippy cups, and water bottles. In response to consumer backlash, the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby products.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a complete ban on BPA in the United States and it can still be found in some water bottles, canned goods and other plastic products. In addition to BPA, plastic food storage containers often contain other toxic chemicals such as BPS (a common substitute for BPA), petroleum, PVC, Polycarbonate and Polystyrene.
Food or drink that sits in these containers can absorb toxic chemicals that leach out of the plastic – a process that is only made worse when food is also heated in plastic storage containers. There are many reasons that this causes concern, one of the biggest being the effect that these chemicals are known to have on human hormones and the functions of the endocrine system.
Unfortunately, with or without plastic food containers, we’re still exposed to many of these toxic chemicals every day. To protect our personal health and the environment, it’s important to limit exposure to these chemicals as much as possible. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by bidding a final farewell to storing your food in plastic.
Kicking the Plastic Habit
Many companies have made the move toward using plastic that’s BPA-free. This is a great step in the right direction; unfortunately, we know that BPA isn’t the only issue. The fact is most plastic is loaded with toxins that have the potential to find their way into your food or beverages. So, what’s a person to do – especially when it seems like plastic is the most readily available option?
The most effective approach is a combination of switching to alternative materials, such as glass and reducing your consumption of food and beverage that comes from the manufacturer packaged in plastics.
Glass is a great alternative to plastic for food storage. While glass containers might be a little more expensive up front, their incredible versatility and health advantages make them a worthwhile investment.
Most glass storage containers are both microwave and freezer friendly, plus many of them can even be tossed directly into the oven to reheat food. They’re also stain-resistant and odor-resistant – perks that plastic just can’t claim. The new generation of glass storage containers is lightweight and break-resistant, making them perfect for packing a child’s lunch.
Glass is also a much greener option when compared to plastic, but what can you do to protect your health and the environment when some of your favorite foods come pre-packaged in plastic?
The best solution, which might not be the one you want to hear, is to eliminate these foods from your diet as much as possible. Nature has provided a bounty of nutritious goodness to nourish your body, and it requires no manufacturing or additional packaging.
While it might take more time and planning, you can avoid a lot of plastic packaging by preparing and cooking your food at home. For example, try replacing that rotisserie chicken that sits for hours, steaming in its plastic container with a chicken that you roast on the weekend while catching up on things around the house. Or switch out your favorite ready-made deli salad with a homemade version that will taste fresher and last longer. Even if you can replace one prepackaged food or meal a week with something freshly prepared at home, you’re reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals significantly.
Still, no matter how diligent you might be, there will be times when the convenience of prepackaged food is the best or only option. The good news is that you can still minimize your exposure to chemicals by bringing it home and immediately transferring the food to a non-plastic container for storage or heating.
Being Smart About Plastics
In a perfect world, you would be able to take all your plastic containers to the recycling center and go all-in on a huge set of glass storage containers and plastic-free cooking utensils. However, real-life and finances can easily get in the way of this goal. If a complete transformation isn’t an option, there are ways that you can be smarter about how you use plastics.
Begin by recognizing which plastics are the most dangerous and make a commitment to get rid of them first. The next time you reach for water bottle or plastic container, flip it over and look at the number that’s nestled in the middle of the recycling symbol. Containers marked with the number 5 are the safest for food storage and heating.
Coming in second are plastic containers marked with a 2 or a 4. Number 2 containers are high-density polyethylene, which is typically opaque with a lower risk of chemical leaching. Number 4 plastics are used for many condiments, frozen foods and in the packaging of bread and other baked goods. These are considered to be low risk.
Plastics marked with 1 are intended for single-use products, like bottled water. To minimize exposure with this type of plastic, it’s important to not reuse these containers, no matter how tempting it may be. This type of plastic is also extremely sensitive to heat. You should never drink beverages in plastic bottles if they’ve been left in a warm car or out in direct sunlight.
Containers that are marked with a 3, 6 or 7 are considered high-risk plastics and should be avoided at all costs. These plastics either contain the most toxic chemicals, have the greatest risk of leaching into your food or are frequently not accepted by community recycling programs.
If you must use plastics, how you use them is important. Foods that are greasy or acidic have a greater chance of pulling chemicals out of the containers. A lot of us also have those plastic containers that look like they’ve done battle lurking in the back of our cupboards. Containers that are scratched, dented or cracked should be tossed because they increase the risk of chemicals being introduced to your food.
The most important advice regarding the safest use of plastic is that heating foods in plastic should be avoided at all costs. If it isn’t in your budget to invest in a complete set of new glass containers, start out with just one or two that you transfer food into for reheating. If you’re a coffee drinker that gets a warm, caffeinated brew in a to-go cup every day, purchase a non-plastic, insulated container and ask your barista to prepare your drink in that instead.
Make the First Move
There are little things each of us can do every day to reduce our exposure to plastics and minimize the effects of them on our health and the environment. In a perfect world, we could count on manufacturers to make responsible choices. In the real world, it’s up to us, the consumer, to do the research and choose wisely. Make a commitment to choose companies that are committed to sustainability in their packaging and using recyclable materials.