plastic tray of sushi with poison symbol

Are Plastic Plates and Food Containers Safe?

[toc]Despite the fact that most pesticides have short half-lives, many people seem more concerned about their food being organic… rather than how it’s cooked, how it’s stored, or the material it’s eaten off.

Organic free range chicken is a waste of money if you’re grilling it, due to the carcinogenic heterocyclic amines it creates.

Though one could argue endlessly as to which foods are healthier. Let’s set that aside and just consider something all diets have in common; no one wants potentially dangerous chemicals leaching into their food!

This topic is more important today than ever before.

You only have to go back a couple generations to see grains sold in burlap bags, meat from the butcher wrapped in natural brown paper, and rather than a plastic tub, the butter may have come from the creamery in a reusable ceramic. You would turn it in for a credit the next time.

Now, regardless of what you eat, chances are there’s plastic packaging involved.

There’s the plastic which lines paper bowls and plates. Sometimes they contain BPA and similar compounds. Those are also used in the tops of glass salsa jars and spaghetti sauce you get from the grocery store.

Your exposure is compounded when you’re buying premade food… stored in dubious packaging, made from ingredients previously stored in similar.

We live in a time when many – if not most – of our meals are fast food or fast casual. Even if you’re avoiding the burgers and fries, this still may be bad for you.

You may be eating healthy to-go salads with an acidic dressing from those clear plastic clamshells. A vegan Thai stir-fry from a melamine plate. You’re exposed to these types of synthetic materials daily… and are ingesting molecules of them, too.

What are the health risks of this?

No one can say for sure. The scientific community’s thinking as to which plastics are safe changes regularly. The BPA substitutes that were believed to be safe just a few years ago are now looking dangerous in 2018.

There are a lot of unknowns, so your best bet is to minimize the amount of plastic migration you’re exposed to, regardless of type.

Here are 7 steps you can take to do so…

1. Avoid packaging made from recycled materials

Saying this today sound likes blasphemy, but recycled papers and plastics may pose a danger to your health, if they’re making direct contact with what you eat or drink.

PFOA is short for perfluorooctanoic acid. It’s what was previously used in the manufacturing process of Dupont’s Teflon and 3M’s similar non-stick coating.

The World Health Organization classifies PFOA as a Group 2B carcinogen. It’s believed to be linked to kidney and testicular cancer. (1)

Surprisingly, its use in microwave popcorn and food wrappers wasn’t banned until 2016.

As such, there’s still plenty floating around in the form of recycled burger/sandwich wrappers, pizza box liners, etc.

Published in 2017, the EWG did a study on 327 different fast food samples and here were the results…

test results showing harmful chemicals in fast food

A staggering 40% tested positive for fluorine, which is the telltale sign of PFOA having been present.

While one may assume that cheap places like McDonald’s and Burger King would be worse, it turns out that some of the most expensive eateries are the biggest offenders; Chipotle, Starbucks, Panera, and Steak ‘n Shake. Only Dominoes, Five Guys, Culver’s, Checkers and Round Table Pizza tested negative for the sign of harmful chemicals.

They speculated that some contained it because they were made partly from recycled paper. Unscrupulous suppliers of wrappers, plates, trays, and so forth may also play apart. Even though PFOA is no longer made in the United States, it continues to be made in China. (2)

2. Extra caution for tomato and acidic ingredients

Who was the very first company to come out with BPA-free canned beans?

The tiny and independent Clinton, Michigan-based Eden Foods.

The CEO of the company was perplexed as to why bisphenol-A (BPA) was being used in the linings of cans, despite the apparent dangers. A BPA-free option didn’t even exist back in the 90’s, so he had to pay for one to be designed and manufactured.

That company still holds that same dedication to health, even when it adversely impacts their bottom line by costing more to use safer materials. Still to this day though, they say the industry can’t come up with a solution for canned tomatoes that’s free of BPA, BSA (bisphenol-S) and/or phthalates.

That’s because tomatoes are very acidic. They eat away the can.

And it’s just canned canned foods, as tomatoes do the same to plastics.

That includes things made from them like ketchup and pizza sauce.

The pH of sodas like Coke and Pepsi isn’t much different. Many fast food ingredients are highly corrosive due to their acidity.

fast food trays with ketchup and sauces

Acidic foods can eat away at plastic linings and increase the overall migration rate – which is the amount of chemicals that are leached.

For anything you eat or drink that’s acidic, ideally you want to opt for glass or ceramic plates, bowls, cups, and storage containers.

Though even ceramic is potentially risky if it’s a poor-quality product that contains lead in the glazing. For an affordable brand of dishes and cookware you can count on as being lead-free, get some Fiesta place settings on Amazon. That brand is made in the USA.

3. Minimize your usage of melamine

The continually growing trend among both quick and full service restaurants is to use melamine plates, bowls, and cups.

What is melamine? It’s that light-weight and hard-to-break material for making reusable plates, bowls, and cups. It can be made to look like ceramic, without the worry of waiters or customers dropping and breaking it.

Restaurants love it, but you should hate it.

Why? Because it migrates from food and beverages, especially those which are hot or acidic, like orange juice.

Actual photo of melamine/cyanuric acid crystals with radiating spokes within the tubular structures of kidneys. Photo credit: Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (source)

“…there is sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of melamine…”

That’s a quote from the World Health Organization. (3)

There is something else that’s arguably even more troubling than the cancer risk (because everything seems to cause that, right).

It’s the fact that these microscopic particles of melamine that leach off will block the tubular structures in your kidneys.

This seems to happen permanently or close to it – once they get in there, they stay there.

Over time this may increase risk of kidney stones and disease or failure of the organ. (4)

While you can protect yourself at home, these days it’s impossible to completely avoid melamine while eating out. At least try to avoid its use with hot and acidic foods, since those factors increase the migration rate. If ceramic or paper plates are available, ask for those instead.

4. Don’t put hot food in plastic containers

Whether it’s reusable melamine or the one-time-use plastic plates and cups, they’re potentially worse for you when heated. Chemicals in fast food packaging and microwaveable meal trays will leach at a greater rate when they become hot.

When exposed to boiling water, the rate at which polycarbonate water bottles release BPA measures up to 55 times higher!

That’s according to a University of Cincinnati study. (5)

Despite the safety concerns, usage of BPA in plastic food containers, cups, and water bottles remains legal. There is no requirement for disclosing its content to consumers. That said, many manufacturers have switched to BPA alternatives, so they can say “BPA free” on their packaging.

The problem? The most recent research has suggested that the “safer” BPA replacements like fluorene-9-bisphenol (BHPF) may be just as bad for you.

BPA is considered dangerous because it mimics estrogen. In a model that simulated the effects on cells using its replacement, BHPF, it too was found to fit into the pocket of the estrogen receptor.

In rodent studies, such as those involving pregnant mice, when exposed to BHPF, they experienced similar pregnancy-related outcomes; 24% fewer live pups per litter. (6)

Even BPA-free containers that are believed to be safe may be just as harmful to your health, because the substitute placticizers being used demonstrate similar endocrine-disrupting side effects.

Good research on their migration rates in cold vs. hot plastic has not really been published. One can hypothesize that as with BPA, the rate at which BHPF and other substitutes migrate will go up exponentially when heated. This why you should not put piping hot food in plastic containers or microwave them.

5. Choose paper over plastic

Is it safe to eat food from melted plastic?

That’s a bad idea. Contrary to popular belief, microwaving or heating plastic always results in leaching of at least some chemicals. The question is not if, but how much. The types labeled as “microwave safe” simply have rates of leaching which are considered safe.

The more they are heated, the more the plasticizers will migrate. Even with BPA-free dinnerware and containers, there’s still the BHPF and phthalates like DnBP and DBP which will leach. When melted, exponentially higher amounts of chemicals are dispersed, which likely exceed the thresholds approved for a given food-grade plastic.

Previously, cling wraps and trays used PVC that was believed to be safe to eat, until it was found not to be.

Now, manufacturers use HDPE and polyethylene, which again, they believe is non-toxic and poses little risk. Is this history repeating itself?

Regardless of the type of plastic food container used, even if it’s not melted, heating it will increase migration of particles. Hot food on a plastic plate will generally cause greater leaching than the same item if it were cold. Furthermore, oily and fatty foods that make contact with the plastic can also accelerate leaching.

Even though the migration testing in food packaging falls within limits believed to be okay, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

stack of natural unbleached molded fiber food containers

When possible, choose unbleached paper products that don’t have a plastic coating. Even if they’re recycled, that’s still preferable to plastic. There may be a 40% chance that PFOA derivatives are in recycled paper, but there’s a 100% chance that melamine and other food-grade plastics leach. Choose the lesser of the evils.

For paper containers that require a coating like cups opt for natural wax versus polyethylene. If you have no choice but the latter, it is a petroleum-based coating. The good news is that it’s the most common in the world and has been for decades, so there is more health and migration data on it.

6. Consider your utensils

empty ice cream cups from Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC, formerly Babycakes

Okay, it’s hard to resist that melted ice cream and chocolate at the bottom of your cup.

So what do you? You pivot the tip of your spoon and scrape the sides in a circular motion. Not even once or twice, maybe several times over.

When you do that, you’re also scraping plastic off the cup.

This problem occurs to some degree with whatever you’re eating. Serrated plastic knives cutting into the plastic coated plate may be the most extreme example, but even that mini-pitchfork you use to eat your salad is giving blunt trauma to the surface of the plate or bowl repeatedly.

Using metal utensils with paper and plastic plates is an even worse idea. Those will generally be even more damaging to the surface.

The solution is not perfect, but it does reduce how much ends up in your food:

When eating off of disposable plastic plates like Solo, Chinet, and Hefty, try and prevent the forks and knives from passing through the food and onto (or into) the plate.

That will reduce the scraping of the plastic off the surface.

7. What are the best food containers?

All plastics will cause migration to some degree. While this might be harmless with some, the fact is that they are relatively new inventions. Their full effects on health are poorly understood, particularly with the newest BPA replacements like BHPF, which is used in BPA-free water bottles, frozen food trays, and similar.

The best containers to use will be those made of clear glass. Examples include the storage containers, bakeware and dishes made by Pyrex and similar brands. This is because glass doesn’t migrate matter into your food and even if it did, the minerals coming off would be far preferable to plastics.

The brand Pyrex has been made since 1908 but the history of glass-making dates back to 3,500 BC. It’s made by heating sand, soda ash, and limestone at extreme temperatures (3,100°F or 1,700° C).

glass Pyrex storage containers

Here at Superfoodly, we use these for storing chopped veggies and leftovers, as well as heating things up in the oven. Of course, don’t do any heating with the plastic tops on, but for storage purposes the lids are fine, even with tomatoes and acidic dishes. Just make sure you leave space between the food and lid during storage.

Since glass is a simple and old-school technology, there are cheaper knockoffs to Pyrex that are of equal safety. However we prefer to spend the extra couple bucks for the certainty of knowing what we are buying… versus a made in China version from an unknown manufacturer. On Amazon, you can get this 19-piece set of Pyrex for a great price.