Reusing plastic bottles and containers is a controversial topic. The bottom line question is: Do the containers offer an unwanted bonus – harmful chemicals that leach out when you reuse them? Research has shown that the biggest risk for plastic water bottles is germ contamination, but do the same conclusions hold for plastic bowls, tubs, and other items frequently used for storing and reheating food in the microwave?
The Plastics Controversy
As with bottles, the controversy centers around whether the plastic contains BPA (bisphenol A) or phthalates, an ingredient in PVC plastics. Since products containing these compounds have been banned for use in baby bottles in Canada and Europe, many people in the U.S. question the safety of plastic containers. The research on whether they are harmful to humans is inconclusive, but the way a plastic is labeled can help you decide whether you want to use things made from it to store and reheat. Plastic products that bear the recycling number #3 or #7 may include these controversial chemicals, called plasticizers, while ones labeled with #2, #4, or #5 are deemed safe. These guidelines are not always valid, as Rubbermaid, a major manufacturer of plastic products, does not use BPA or phythalates though it labels products with #7.
Does “Microwave-Safe” Mean Safe?
Whether a container is listed as “microwave-safe” is an indicator of potential hazard. Margarine tubs, takeout containers, and similar products are only meant for one-time use and do not have to meet current FDA standards for microwave-safe grades of plastic. If you put these containers in the microwave they will probably warp, which indicates they may release plastic chemicals into your food. Products specifically made for reheating in a microwave claim to be food grade and able to withstand higher temperatures.
Some critics remain skeptical and go so far as to say that you shouldn’t reheat food in plastic at all, and that you should even refrain from washing plastics in the dishwasher as the heat is enough to release chemicals. Instead, they advocate only using microwave-safe glass, which refers to the ability to resist heat, not any tendency to leach chemicals. Most of these critics never claim that heating one meal in a BPA laden plastic dish will kill you, but the long-term effects may affect hormones.
Common Sense Rules To Follow
For anyone who enjoys the convenience of plastic containers, this position may be extreme. However, there are a few good sense tips to follow.
- Avoid using containers never intended for reheating. They may survive a spin or two to in the microwave, but may also expose you to chemicals you don’t want in your body.
- When you cover your food with plastic cling wrap, make sure that the brand you use is marked microwave-safe.
- Even though most plastic food storage bags are microwave-safe, small varieties such as sandwich bags are too thin to hold up under microwave use.
- Throw away containers that are distorted or discolored. Even if they were safe, they are past their prime.
- Don’t reheat fatty foods full of cream, butter, and cheese in plastic, as the high fat content will make them absorb more chemicals when microwaved.
- Don’t store food in plastic containers not intended for food use, such as a new mop bucket or trashcan. Big containers like this might seem like a good place to store 25 pounds of flour or the punch for your neighborhood block party, but you can’t be sure of what’s in the plastic.
Though a person with a normal immune system will undoubtedly survive food stored and reheated in plastic, someone with chemical sensitivities or allergies may have an adverse reaction. In these situations, be safe and use glass containers for reheating rather than risk potential problems.
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