While your leftovers sit in the fridge, they could be wicking up chemicals and toxic substances.
We can laugh now, but when Mr. McGuire told Ben in the 1967 classic The Graduate there was a great future in plastics, he was foretelling the technological innovation that was to come. Indeed plastics revolutionized packaging, transportation, and food consumption in America and around the world.
But as with so many “revolutions,” plastics have seen their time in the limelight expire. Its ubiquity as a wonder of the modern world is fading as research reveals that many of these plastics aren’t as safe and wonderful as we once thought. Today, in fact, plastics are often reviled by many.
While research has led to many changes and upgrades, plenty of products in grocery stores—and your kitchen cabinets—may still be leaching toxic chemicals into your food and drinks. Here, a guide to understanding the potentially hazardous containers, how you can detect them, and what you can use instead.
Grandma’s Reused Whipped Topping Tubs
You’ve not lived until you’ve left your grandmother’s or auntie’s house with a stack of whipped topping containers, butter tubs, and burnt orange Tupperware from the ‘80s filled with Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. Unfortunately, you may also be leaving with a host of bisphenol A (BPA).
BPA, a type of polycarbonate, is a major ingredient in many plastics and can liners and was used widely in baby bottles and sippy cups for decades. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, citing potential harm to the brains and reproductive development of infants and children.
Researchers have known for decades, since 1936, that BPA mimics estrogens and binds with the same receptors as the hormone throughout the human body. The exposure to the chemicals has been associated with increased breast cancer risk, obesity, and reproductive abnormalities, in addition to other health effects. Still, the chemicals have been used widely since the 1950s.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that it became clear the hazard this man-made chemical may have. In fact, in 2004, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tested more than 2,500 urine samples in people ages six and older, and found that nearly all had traces of BPA. The levels they found were lower than what is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but follow-up research shows that the exposure to BPA is near constant for most individuals. Additionally, the levels of BPA byproducts in urine are highest in children and lowest in adults; adolescents fall in between.
Even “microwave safe” plastics can leach BPA. Some migrate more of the chemicals into food when the plastics are heated, washed in the dishwasher, or cut/scratched, like what can occur when you use a fork or knife in the container.
The FDA maintains that BPA is safe for food storage and packaging, but many companies have been removing the chemical from their plastics and proudly displaying their BPA-free status on products in the last decade.
How to Spot BPA-free Products: Polycarbonates like BPA have the #7 plastics stamp on the bottom of bottles and tubs. Unfortunately, #7 is a catch-all category for plastics, so some non-toxic options, like polylactic acid (PLA), fall into this category despite being generally recognized as safe. Your best bet to be BPA-free is look for marketing language on packages to let you know this plastic is made without the chemical.
What You Can Use Instead: Glass and stainless steel food storage containers are safe, non-porous, and don’t absorb colors and smells. Glass is dishwasher-, microwave-, and refrigerator-safe, and some products may even be oven- and freezer-safe. (Read the paperwork that comes with the product.) Stainless steel isn’t quite as versatile—it can’t go into the microwave—but it can be used in the oven and freezer.
One to Buy: Pyrex Ultimate 10-piece Glass Storage Set ($50, williams-sonoma.com)
No, this isn’t a cruel joke. Instead, it’s the result of poor regulatory oversight of plastics and food packaging products. As BPA awareness spread and consumers started demanding companies produce products without the plasticizer, many companies switched to bisphenol S (BPS). Like BPA, BPS is an endocrine disruptor that mimics hormones and blocks the action of other hormones. In short, it’s almost the same bad chemical with the same toxic results.
BPS has not been shown to be a safer plastic than BPA, and it may be just as hormonally active as BPA. Food is the dominant source of BPS in human samples, and like BPA, almost all samples show at least trace amounts of BPS.
How to Spot BPS-free Products: It’s tough to find BPS-free food storage containers. BPS is used in polycarbonates and falls into the ambiguous #7 plastics category, but that identifier alone isn’t enough to shun every product with a #7 stamp. Some are perfectly fine. Instead, stick with glass or stainless steel whenever you’re in doubt.
What You Can Use Instead: Again, glass and stainless steel are your best bets. Some BPS-free water bottles are on the market. They’ll tout their BPS-free status loudly and proudly.
Two to Buy: Camelback Eddy 1-liter bottle ($16, camelback.com) is made with Tritan, a BPA-, BPS-, and BPF-free plastic. The Lifefactory 22-Ounce Glass Water Bottle ($23, lifefactory.com) is BPA-free and comes with a silicone sleeve to prevent slipping.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs, also sometimes called PFCs) are synthetic chemicals that are used in a number of products to make them more grease, stain, and water-resistant. Unfortunately, PFASs are associated with cancer, thyroid disease, and developmental problems, in addition to other health issues. These substances, also called fluorinated chemicals, are found in grease-resistant food packaging, or fast-food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.
In a test of more than 400 fast-food wrappers, paperboard containers, and beverage containers, researchers found that almost half—46 percent—of the fast-food wrappers and papers and 20 percent of paperboard samples contained detectable amounts of these chemicals.
PFASs are highly stable and highly persistent, which means they linger and don’t break down with heat or cold. They can also accumulate in the body. What’s more concerning is the many places in which you can come into contact with the chemicals. They are also found in carpet, waterproof apparel, non-stick cookware, and more.
Some of these chemicals have been banned in the U.S., but not all. More research is needed to fully understand which of these substances is harmful and if they should also be sent packing. Currently, the National Institute of Health (NIH), at the request of the EPA, is conducting more research due to the concerns for toxic effects and persistence in environmental samples.
How to Spot PFAS-free Products: Most, if not all, food packages and wrapping papers comply with the FDA requirements. That’s in part because the FDA doesn’t view these chemicals as unsafe. In 2016, they removed approval for two PFCs in food packaging, but their decision was based on companies abandoning the chemicals, not any potential harm. A second chemical, C8, was shown to cause environmental and potentially toxic effects in humans, so the FDA asked companies to voluntarily stop using it earlier this year.
What to Do Instead: It’s important to limit your environmental exposure where you can. Unfortunately, if you eat out, you can’t know what your food is touching. Companies aren’t required to disclose.
Phthalates are a type of plasticizer added to plastics ingredients to make them soft and flexible. They are part of a group of plastics called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They’re found in plastic wraps and some commercial food containers. They’re especially prominent in commercial plastic wraps.
While the research is very limited, some studies suggest phthalates may lead to early onset of puberty, reproductive defects, lower sperm count, and other health issues. The effects are most troublesome for children, because their smaller bodies have a higher rate of exposure to the chemicals than larger adult bodies.
Phthalates can leach into foods that come into contact with the plastics. Fatty and oily foods are especially efficient at wicking the chemicals from food, and heating the plastic increases the rate at which the chemicals can transfer.
How to Spot Phthalates: It’s almost impossible to know which products contain phthalates, but one marker is helpful: PVC plastics get the #3 marking. Avoid using any plastics ingredients with your food that contain this number.
What You Can Use Instead: Again, look for glass, stainless steel, or ceramic alternatives. If you need a flexible option for storing small bits of leftover ingredients or toting sandwiches to school or work, look to food-grade silicone storage bags or vinyl acetate bags. They’re reusable and safe for food storage. However, do not use them in the oven or microwave unless they are rated for such use.
Bee’s wrap can be used in place of plastic wrap, too. It’s a reusable and sustainable option to plastic wraps, but it’s not right for everyone. It’s not nearly as pliable and requires some upkeep. If high-maintenance plastic wrap suits your lifestyle, however, start with this Bee’s Wrap 3-pack ($18, amazon.com).
One to Try: rezip 3-Piece Stand-Up Leakproof Reusable Storage Bag Kit ($20, amazon.com)