Plastic is one of the safest materials ever invented. In fact, the endless variety in plastics allows us to choose something that perfectly fits our requirements. Be it strength, flexibility, durability or color – plastics can be found in almost all combinations of varying degrees of these parameters. When it comes to food storage, there are very many options available depending on the type of food, how long it needs to be stored, and other conditions such as temperature and humidity. The same kind of plastic may not be suitable for storing different types of food; hence these choices should be made carefully.
Over the past few years, several issues regarding the use of plastics for storing food items have cropped up. Many of these concerns revolve around the safety standards of food plastic containers in various thermal settings. Also, as the food type greatly determines how suitable a particular plastic is, immense research has gone into the development of new plastics that are safer, more durable, and easy to use. The passages below shed some light on the safety of plastic in various food storing conditions.
Storage Containers for Grains
High density polyethylene, also known as HDPE for short, is one of the best options for storing food grains like rice, corn, and also wheat flour. This polymer is sturdy and strong enough to hold a large quantity of grains. HDPE does not leach chemicals into the food. Therefore, apart from being a good grain storage option, it is also used for other food storing purposes. The plastic is generally opaque, but may sometimes be obtained in a transparent form with a slight change in composition or forming technique. HDPE containers are widely accepted by municipal recyclers. They are also easy to clean, long lasting, and highly resistant against all kinds of wear and tear.
Plastic Water Bottles
Plastic containers for water have been the greatest source of debate in the world of food storage polymers. Out of these, the most notorious is polyethylene, commonly known as PET. This is one of the simplest plastics. It is light weight, easy to mould into a variety of shapes, and can be drawn into extremely thin sheets which go into the making of plastic bags. However, recent incidents have shown that PET is a potentially hazardous material, and its use must comply with some basic guidelines. The use of PET bottles for storing water should be avoided in high temperature applications. This is because PET has a very low melting temperature; it starts to stick at temperatures as low as 60 or 70 degrees Celsius.
As a rule, PET bottles are safe for storing water in the refrigerator and at the room temperature. However, they should never be used in cars where they are prone to certain toxic chemical reactions. Also, they are also not suitable for use at high temperatures. For safe use, PET bottles must be cleaned using hot soapy water and dried thoroughly between uses. Discard them when they become foggy or clouded.
Plastic Containers for Refrigerated Foods
Almost all food-grade plastics qualify for use in refrigeration. The most common ones are HDPE and PET for water and milk mugs, bottles, and jars. LDPE, the low density counterpart of HDPE, is used where some amount of flexibility is required from the plastic. For example, plastic wrap and sealable sandwich bags are made of LDPE. When storing vegetables and fruits in plastic wrap for refrigeration, it is advisable that you pierce holes through the wrap. This will keep the vegetables and fruits well ventilated and fresher for long.
Microwave Safe Plastics
There are a number of plastics which are safe for use in high temperature applications. HDPE, LDPE and polypropylene are the best examples of microwave oven safe plastics. Other types of plastic like PET may be used, but these need some amount of caution to be exercised. For microwaves, PET is for one-time use only, and should not be used over and over again. Also, some studies have shown that considerable amounts of antimony are present in PET. Therefore, to be on the safer side, it is best to steer clear of it. Polystyrene and PVC containers should never be used in the microwave as these are extremely hazardous.
The lids of the containers too must comply with these standards. You can also choose alternative materials for lids. Ceramics and glass are excellent examples as they are proven to be microwave oven safe. Before you begin heating your food, make sure the original packaging has been removed before the food is placed in the plastic container.
It is considered safe to use FDA approved plastics as long as the instructions that come with them are adhered to. Some plastics may contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that is frequently used in their manufacturing process. This chemical is known to leach out of the plastic and react with the food material. Therefore, its use must be avoided at all times. Polycarbonate plastic usually contains BPA. This plastic is used in the manufacture of five gallon water cooler bottles, plastic mugs, and baby bottles. Mothers with young babies must especially beware of these. One should look out for the “BPA free” label which shopping for such plastic containers.
As a tip, food plastic containers should ideally be washed by hand. The harsh action of dishwashers and the strong detergents used in them may damage the containers. Washing them by hand will not only ensure that your plastics are safe from the abrasive action of detergents; it will also prevent the release of harmful chemicals which might occur in the dishwasher. Moreover, it will also keep the surfaces free of scratches. Wear and tear, normally seen in the form of scratches on the food storage containers increases their surface area. This makes them more prone to further damage as they become difficult to clean and food starts to stick in them.
On the whole, the bottom line is that plastic containers are safe for use – as long as the right plastics are chosen for the right application.