Are Plastic Food Containers Really Safe?

by in Food News, Food Safety, February 19, 2009

The short answer: No, not all of them. Time to scour your cupboard and root out those old plastic containers, cups and sports bottles.

The Issue
Recent studies have suggested that a chemical called bisphenol-A (a.k.a. BPA) — which is found in plastic containers — is hazardous to your health. This chemical is in some plastic baby bottles and “sippy” cups, transparent water bottles, harder plastic containers and the lining of canned foods. Studies have linked BPA to brain damage, immune deficiencies, behavioral issues and metabolic abnormalities. Although the FDA still claims BPA is safe, do you really want to put your family or yourself at risk?

Determining If You Have BPA Containers
Polyethylene and polypropylene are alternative plastics that researchers have determined are safe. Glass and stainless steel are other safe alternative as well. If you are not sure which chemical is in your containers, check the recycling code. On containers made with polyethylene, you will see the number 2 in a small triangle on the bottom. You’ll see the number 5 on polypropylene containers. The number that you don’t want is 7, which tends to appear on BPA-containing plastics. It is a catch-all category for plastics, however. Generally, if the plastic is hard (like on clear sports bottles), you should err on the side of caution and assume it has BPA in it — unless the manufacturer or packaging specifically says it’s BPA-free.

Handling Your Plastics
The safest choice is avoiding plastic containers totally. If you’re unwilling to give up plastic food containers (we know how convenient and pervasive they are), avoid heating foods in them or freezing them — unless they say they’re freezer- or microwave-safe. Also hand wash these containers; don’t clean them in the dishwasher. Since acidic foods tend to leach out more chemicals, store your tomato sauces and lemonades in BPA-free containers. As for your canned foods, Eden Foods makes BPA-free cans. Or you can opt for frozen choices instead.

If you do find some offenders, you may not want to overload your trash with them (since most won’t be recyclable). Consider using them to organize and store non-food items. I have some of those old souvenir plastic cups; rather than drink from them, I stash pens and pencils in them on my desk.

Unsure if your plastics are safe? If you know the brand, call the manufacturer to ask them directly — you should be able to find a customer service number on the packaging or online.

Plastic Alternatives
Many people carry a reusable water bottle to the gym or keep one at the office. My two favorite eco-friendly and BPA-free containers are Sigg and Klean Kanteen. They are pricey, but with small 12-ounce containers, I feel safer sending my child to school with them.

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Comments (69)

  1. Fred says:

    Can someone point out where, in the National Toxicology Program page linked to above, it says that BPA is dangerous to my health? I can’t find it anywhere on the page.

  2. Linda C. says:

    I didn’t see where anyone answered if a #1 is safe so could someone? It’s on the bottom of the Glaceau VitaminWater bottles. Would love an email on it –

  3. Wendy Gilbertson says:

    Oh for Heavens Sake! This is the latest in terrorizing people. I find it ridiculous. If this is so true then why did it take so long to come out with this study. I am sorry but I think smoking, alcoholism and obesity, and fast food are much more contributing factors to disease in this country. I just can’t sweat this study. Itis unfounded as far as I am concerned. I’ll have to see more hard evidence.

  4. Matias says:

    What about containers that are left over after the Chinese Food delivered is consumed. Are these unsafe to be reused to store leftovers ?

  5. Toby Amidor says:

    Hi Matias,
    The Chinese food containers should be kept for a few day max. Since you are not exposing it to high heat like the dishwasher or the freezer, the chemicals don’t leach out as easily. If you are uneasy about storing them in the containers, you can always transfer the leftovers into a BPA-free container.

  6. Brenda L. Baker says:

    Get real!! For those of you that think this all might be a “big” scare. Think again! You don’t know what’s in these plastic products! If you think that the government would protect us against any harm, well think again. I used to work in an elementary school cafeteria years ago. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we got in that was labeled “goverment” food. I’m sure that many of leaders in government wouldn’t eat it! Still yet, this is what they sent to many schools across the country. Yes, we many be a little frantic about this, but do you want to take a chance of your family’s well being? Who knows the whole truth? Yes, other things can be as well dangerous. This is why many things are being changed, such as public smoking. Many programs against under-age drinking, and obesity in many children are now on the rise due to many studies showing the risk and dangers. I worry about my (and others) childrens safey; this is why I take this so to heart! I would like to know more information on these studies! I hope soon, we will all have the (correct) answers on our concerns for a safe plastic!

  7. Andrea says:

    anybody consider that these harmful chemicals are hormone disrupters? Do you know what your hormones do? Control pretty much every system in your body and mostly your metabolism. Are we really eating that much more than they did 20 years ago?? Or have we chemically corrupted our systems so that they no longer work properly?

  8. Terry says:

    Hi Ladies, a lot of you are commenting that the plastics are not harmful to our health. If you would like to check out the Fred Hutchinson Cancer website, they show you that these plastics cause cancer. Working in the Health field for 4 years, they were always emailing us to tell our patients about the hazards. Of course the FDA doesn’t want to say that these things are harmful, they make to much money on them. The hard thing is these chemicals compound, which the FDA does not tell you. They are not harmful in small amounts and if they cleared your system each time, that would be one thing, but they don’t. Each time you are in contact, they add to the previous times, just like radiation. Sheryl Crow also stated that she knew that drinking out of water bottles that had heated up in her car and cooled back down, contributed to her breast cancer after reading about the heating up of store bought water bottles. Hmmm…think about that one.

  9. Jill says:

    I never knew my Nalgene could potentially harm me. However, I heard that if you don’t put hot liquids in the Nalgene it won’t release the chemicals. I only drink water out of mine. Does anyone know if this is true?
    I researched BPA Free Nalgenes anyways just to be on the safe side. Theirs is made of copolyester, not polyethylene or polypropylene. Does anyone know if copolyester is safe? I know it is BPA free, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘safe’.

  10. Teresa says:

    If you think about it, it does make sense. A long time ago you didn’t hear so much about cancer but now it is everywhere. We all know someone who has it or died
    from it. Plastic was not as well used years ago like it is now. My Mother doesn’t like plastic and she uses glass bowls and dishes. She has always said it can’t be good for you. Think why has cancer so wide spread now. More people have it,not just because doctors know more about it.

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