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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