Take a minute, sit back and think about all those things used throughout any given day that are not made of some sort of plastic. From your the keys you type up daily reports on to the spatula used to flip your egg this morning to the insulated coffee mug on your desk to reusable water bottles to the drink cup your 2-year-old sips apple juice from to the container your lunch comes in, plastic is everywhere. It’s become so ubiquitous it’s difficult to point to something that doesn’t use plastic and, more often than not, we hardly notice using it. It serves the purpose we need it to serve. There. Done.
Unfortunately, in recent years the problems with our reliance on plastic as a package, all material have garnered more attention. Caught off guard with the realization that your 2 year old’s juice cup, the beat up and scratched water bottle taken on umpteen hiking trips during college and the salad dressing container used for yesterday’s lunch are leaching unpronounceable chemicals into the food they hold, it’s hard not to feel dumbfounded wondering what else you’ve taken for granted that’s also contaminating your body.
Give Me the Bad News First
Okay, here it is. Plastic’s very usefulness, the ability of it to be molded, shaped and contorted into any shape the human brain can come up with is what makes it less safe than we’d like. The chemical additives that make plastic see-thru, unbreakable, softer or malleable and bendable are the very ones that seep into the foods we eat and even the air we breathe. Concerns around food storage relate to essentially 2 types of chemicals.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Most of you reading this have heard of BPA. It carved a wide swath through the news media not too long ago pulling along fears of contaminated baby bottles and reusable water bottles. BPA was first made in 1891 and has been an integral component in plastics ever since making plastic cups and bottles transparent and shatterproof. The U.S. manufactures 2.3 billion tons each year.
Studies have shown BPA mimics estrogen and interfere with natural female hormones. It can also promote the growth of breast cancer cells and is shown to decrease sperm counts in rats. The chemical leaches out more readily if the container is scratched or is subjected to higher temperatures as with reheating in microwaves or run through a dishwasher. Leaching at higher temperatures occurs at 55 times the rate than that of colder temps. Infants, younger children, and pregnant women are more at risk for exposure due simply to the fact that they use more of these plastic containers than other populations. There is one small bright spot though, your body does break BPA down readily into a recognized waste product that is then purged by natural means.
Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
DEHP is one of a family of chemicals called phthalates which are used in a whole range of plastic products from various forms of PVC, vinyl floors, laundry detergent fragrances and personal hygiene products. DEHP messes with the endocrine system by mimicking hormones and displacing and interrupting hormone production. As with BPA, DEHP leaches more readily when exposed to higher temperatures but it is also highly soluble in lipids and oils, so it will easily seep into any high fat or oily foods like dairy products, meats, oil-based salad dressing and vegetable oil.
An easy way to identify those plastics with BPA or DEHP is to look at the recycling code usually located on the bottom of the container. BPA is associated with #7 which is a catch-all code for plastics that include resins not represented solely by the other six recycling codings. These plastics are used to make such containers as ketchup bottles and the larger 5-gallon water and citrus juice containers. DEHP is associated with #3, the PVC’s. Making it a practice to avoid recycling codes 3 and 7 will go a long way to guarding against consuming these two chemicals.
Good News (The Alternatives)
Looking back on all those products and the containers that house them and recognizing how often you personally use them, frustrated probably understates your current feelings. But now that the bad news is out of the way, it’s time for some viable options for safely meeting your short and long-term food storage needs.
Opt for polyethylene and polypropylene containers. These tend to be white or clear, food-grade containers with recycle codes of 2, 4 and 5. While all plastics will leach, these options are the safest of the plastics and avoid subjecting them to higher temperatures as this will hasten leaching.
- #2 Plastics: These are the high-density polyethylenes (HDPE) and are usually found as five-gallon buckets.
- #4 Plastics: The type is the low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Rubbermaid bins are a common example of this type.
- #5 Plastics: These are the polypropylene (PP) containers common with an airlock or Tupperware-type containers. These can release a mild toxin but again avoid exposing them to high heat and the risk will remain low.
Other food storage options include;
- Glass: Wide mouth canning jars or large Mason-type airlock jars.
- Ceramic containers: Similar to the air-lock type Mason jars.
- Butcher or Wax Paper, Aluminum Foil: Unbleached, brown butcher paper, wax paper and aluminum foil are viable alternatives for wrapping food or lining containers such as Rubbermaid-type totes that you may not feel comfortable storing food directly into.
- Silicone Products: These are a relatively new (yet somewhat expensive) option which have grown out of demand for plastic alternatives. These are sold as lids that will stretch to fit various containers or there is a silicone version of the ziplock freezer bags.