Have you ever given a thought to all the plastic in your home/kitchen? What could be the reason for alarming concern over usage of plastics in storing/serving/eating food?
You probably have an entire cupboard full of stuff, including reusable plastic containers that you use to store and reheat leftovers. After all, plastics are handy, lightweight, they store easily, and they’re cheap. We have been enslaved to plastic usage for the last few decades, and it is a useful material with many important uses. But, food storage, reheating, and serving is not among these uses. To reduce the risk that plastic chemicals will leach into food avoid cooking, eating, storing in plastic containers, even if the label says ‘microwave safe,’ or ‘oven safe’.
When it comes to plastic food containers, some are safer than others. You can tell what kind of plastic you have by looking at the ‘resin identification number’ located in a triangle on the product (check details in pic). Note that the triangle by itself does not mean that the plastic is recyclable. You need to look at the number in the triangle and check whether that plastic grade is safe for using or not.
What is PLASTIC?
There’s no single substance called ‘plastic’. That term covers many materials made from an array of organic and inorganic compounds. Substances are often added to plastic to help shape or stabilize it. Two of these plasticizers are:
Bisphenol-A (BPA), added to make clear, hard plastic
Phthalates added to make plastic soft and flexible
BPA and phthalates are believed to be Endocrine disrupters. These are substances that mimic human hormones, and not for the good. When food is wrapped in plastic or placed in a plastic container and microwaved, BPA and phthalates may leak into the food. Any migration is likely to be greater with fatty foods such as meats and oils than with other foods. Whenever hot food or liquid is packed in a plastic bag there is an exchange of toxic chemicals into the food. Many restaurants, small food kiosks, food delivery systems still use plastic boxes, covers and cups unsuited for keeping food as it may lead to food poisoning. These should be avoided at all costs.
The toxins and chemicals that leach from plastics into our food have shown to mimic hormones and cause diseases like- hormonal imbalances, infertility, early onset of diabetes, hypertension, cancers, especially breast cancer. Thus, it’s important to try to make reasonable efforts to replace plastic in our kitchens.
As we know plastic does not last forever. The more it’s heated and cooled, the more the chemicals in that container begin to break down. And when they start to break down, they break down into the food inside. As a result, detrimental and expensive health issues can arise.
Realistically speaking, eating hot food from a plastic bag one time will probably have no effect on a person’s health, but those who make a habit out of it may be putting themselves at risk. There is no set rule on how many times a person can eat food that has touched hot plastic without getting sick. The safest solution is to avoid eating this food whenever possible. The price of a ceramic/steel plate may higher than that of a plastic plate, but compared to the long-term financial and emotional costs associated with conditions like diabetes and infertility, it’s a small price to pay.
How to Create a Safer Kitchen
It’s almost impossible to have a 100% plastic-free kitchen. It wraps our bread, it stores our oils, bread, groceries, packaged foods etc. After all, plastic is everywhere. But we can surely try to remove it from wherever possible!
However, there are steps you can take to create a safer, plastic-free kitchen.
- If you do use plastic, never heat it: When plastic is heated, it leaches chemicals 55 times faster than normal. So, never ever heat food in a plastic container in the microwave, or pour hot food (especially liquid) into a plastic container. Even if it says “microwave safe” on it, it’s still going to leach chemicals. Microwave Safe simply means the container won’t warp in the heat. Also for baby foods/milk- always use designated glass bottles/steel containers for storing food/feeding the baby.
If you still plan to use plastic, stick to numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5. Those are safest.
- Use glass or stainless steel containers: The best step you can take to cut down on your use of plastic is to recycle all the plastic storage containers you have and use glass or stainless steel instead.
- Buy Fresh foods: BPA is in the lining of almost all canned food because it helps prevent corrosion and food contamination. Whenever you can, buy fresh or frozen food rather than canned food. For us Indians, most of the canned food consumption is limited to cherries, pineapple, corn, condensed milk and some other stuff. Always try to buy fresh fruit/ veggies over can stuff.
- Use a stainless steel water bottle/glass jars:
Many plastic bottles available are not safe to use Always check for the mark under the bottle and see if it is safe for storing water on a daily basis. If you can best avoid using plastic bottles and stick to stainless steel bottles available in various sizes. For storing water in fridges- good quality glass bottles or jugs can be used.
Only bottles specifically made to be reused should be refilled. Wear and tear on the bottle can form cracks that could harbour bacteria. An additional concern is that harmful chemicals can leach out of single-use plastic bottles and into your drinking water.
- Also leaving water bottles in cars for extended periods of time can raise the BPA levels. Do not drink bottled water that has been left in a car. The heat reacts with the chemicals in the plastic of the bottle which releases dioxin into the water. Dioxin is a toxin increasingly found in breast cancer tissue. So please be careful and do not drink bottled water that has been left in a car. Use glass, stainless steel, and copper bottles for storing and carrying water.
- Ditch the plastic wrap/cling film
Do you know the plastic that wraps your paneer, meats, cakes, bread and other bakery stuff equally harmful? Avoid that and instead, ask your bakery stuff to be wrapped in food wrapping paper.
- Plastic tiffin boxes– If possible do check the plastic grade of boxes, containers that you use to store/put hot food into. Replace all plastic tiffin boxes with the good old time stainless steel tiffins for kids, for adults as well. Also for adults, a lot of Borosil /glass tiffins are available. To prevent the glass from breaking they have good silicone/foam coverings!
Tupperware/Silicone and similar plastics
While the vast majority of Tupperware products are considered safe, for example, some of its food storage containers use polycarbonate (plastic #7), which has been shown to leach the harmful hormone-disrupting chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) into food items after repeated uses.
However, as a safety precaution: Don’t ever heat, or microwave food in plastic or Tupperware, don’t even pour hot liquid. Wear, tear and repeated washings may lead harmful chemicals leaching into the food.
Silicone: Silicone, a synthetic rubber made of bonded silicon. Food-grade silicone is a non-toxic polymer mostly made from silica (sand). It can withstand heating and freezing without leaching or off-gassing, hazardous chemicals – unlike plastics, which contaminate food in these environments.
According to food regulatory authorities, silicone appears to be safe. It is an inert material – nothing used in its manufacture will leach into foods. Also, Silicone bakeware is tolerant of both heat and cold. However, reports of dyes or silicone oil oozing out of overheated silicone cookware keep on coming on internet posts, as do reports of odours lingering after repeated washings. So while most of us will probably not have a problem with silicone cookware, those with chemical sensitivities might want to stay away until more definitive research has been conducted. In the meantime, cast iron and stainless steel cookware remain top choices for those concerned about harmful elements leaching into their cooked foods.
All this information will help you make better choices for storing, serving and cooking food and replacing plastics from our kitchens and our lives!