How to choose food safe plastics

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Not all plastics are created equal, especially when it comes to those used for storing and packaging food. Some contain chemicals that could be bad for your health. Patty Kim for National Geographic's The Green Guide shares tips for which plastics to use and which to avoid.

How to choose food safe plastics
  • Find the number inside the recycling arrows on the bottom of the plastic product. Safe food containers are made from number 1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics.
  • Number 3 plastics are made out of PVC, polyvinylchloride, which can leech hormone-disrupting phthalates and lead into your food. Some plastic wraps contain PVC as well.
  • Number 6 is found on things like Styrofoam containers. Avoid these for food storage because they contain styrene, a possible human carcinogen.
  • Number 7 is a miscellaneous category that includes polycarbonate plastics made with the chemical bisphenol-A, which is believed to interfere with behavioral and reproductive development in infants. Even though baby bottles containing bisphenol-A are the most common on the market, there are safer alternatives. Just choose glass baby bottles or plastic ones with the number 2, 4, or 5 on the bottom.
Don't forget: you must use even safe plastic food containers correctly for them to be truly safe for your health.
  • A container that’s labeled ‘microwave-safe’ might not melt, but could still emit contaminants while cooking. Opt for ceramic or oven-proof glass containers for microwaving.
  • Don't wash plastic containers in the dishwasher frequently. Over time the material can break down and increase the risk of chemical leeching.
  • Abrasive detergents can cause scratches on plastic which become hiding places for bacteria. Glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers for food storage are the best option as you can safely wash them in the dishwasher.
Transcript Hi I’m Patty Kim for the Green Guide for howdini.com. If you’re buying organic food, well good for you, but you still might be exposing yourself and your family to chemicals. It all come downs to one word: plastics. Plastic is a big part of food storage and packaging, but not all plastics are created equal. Some are safer than others. So which ones should we use and which ones should we avoid?

Well, one plastic that’s controversial is polycarbonate plastic, which is made with a chemical called bisphenol-A. Bisphenol-A exposure in infants is believed to interfere with behavioral and reproductive development. The popular water bottle manufacturer Now Jean has stopped using bisphenol-A in its reusable plastic bottles, and they’re not the only ones that are concerned. Canada has now proposed a ban on the use of bisphenol-A in the making of baby bottles and other baby products. On the other hand, American regulators maintain that bisphenol-A in amounts an average person would consume.

Now the good thing is you don’t need a chemistry to figure out which plastics are safe and which aren’t. Just look at the number inside the recycling arrows at the bottom. Safe food containers are made from number one, two, four, or number five plastics. Number three, something like this, is made out of vinyl, or PVC, which can leech hormone-disrupting phthalates and even lead into your food. You’ll find the number six on things like Styrofoam containers. Just avoid storing any food at all in these guys. These can leech styrene, a possible human carcinogen. And number seven is a miscellaneous category that includes plastics made with bisphenol-A: the problematic chemical we mentioned. Plastic baby bottles containing bisphenol-A are among the most common on the market, but there are safer alternatives. Just choose glass baby bottles or plastic baby bottles with the number two, four, or five on the bottom.

But, you still have to use your plastic products correctly. A container that’s labeled ‘microwave-safe’ might not melt on you, but it could still emit contaminants while cooking. Instead, use ceramic or oven-proof glass dishes like Pyrex. And don’t make the mistake of washing plastic containers in the dishwasher over and over. You see the heat might actually cause some of the plastic material to break down and increases the risk of chemical leeching for some of these plastic products. Also, abrasive detergents can cause scratches, providing a nice little hiding place for bacteria, and you definitely don’t want that. Of course, you can avoid the problem all together by using glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers for food storage, which you can put in the dishwasher.

One more word on plastics: it’s not just containers and bottles you need to be careful with. Some plastic wraps are made with PVC, or polyvinylchloride, that can leech hormone-disrupting phthalates into foods. But, many common wraps are PVC-free including Ziplock sandwich bags, Glad Press Seal wrap, and Saran Cling Plus. Reusable storage containers are probably best, but when you have to use plastic wrap make sure it’s PVC-free.

I’m Patty Kim from the Green Guide for howdini.com.
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  • Patty Kim

    Patty Kim Correspondent, National Geographic's The Green Guide Patty Kim is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. She is served as a host and anchor for National Geographic as well as reporting for the PBS television program “Nova Science Now.” more about this expert »

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