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Leftovers Again? Said the Refrigerator
12/01/2004 - Previous | Next | Health Home
Mark Jeantheau -- Food storage solutions for better health and to save money.

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It's been a rite of passage for anyone growing up in the last three decades to learn how to burp a Tupperware storage container. Tupperware and other brands of plastic storage containers are ubiquitous these days. Sometimes you even see large plastic containers to store your smaller plastic containers in.

But there are some potential health downsides to using all this plastic to store our food. We have some solutions for you, and they'll also save you money in the long run.

A world of plastic people?

Several research studies have found that when plastic comes in contact with certain foods, molecules of the chemicals in the plastic can leach into the food or beverage. Certain characteristics of the food item can make it more likely pick up plastic molecules:

-- The more liquid a food is, the more it touches the plastic, so the more opportunity it has to pick up plastic molecules;

-- Acidic foods, such as tomato sauce, appear to be particularly interactive with plastic;

-- If you heat a food item in a plastic container, even if the container is microwave safe, the transference of plastic from the container to the food is even more likely.

When molecules of plastic, or more properly, when molecules of the chemicals that get added to plastics during manufacturing get into our bodies, it's not a good thing. They can cause unwanted effects in the human body. For instance, some of the chemicals mimic estrogen. Estrogen, of course, is a normal, essential human hormone. But having too much of it (or the molecules that mimic estrogen) has been associated with breast cancer and other health problems. In general, chemicals that fool the body into thinking they are estrogen or other hormones are called endocrine disruptors.

Better food storage solutions

So, what would a better food-storage solution look like? The primary characteristic you want in a container material is inertness. That is, you want a material that holds tightly onto its own molecules and does not let them go floating off into the food or drink touching it. On this score, glass and porcelain are the best choices.

Companies do make some storage containers with glass or porcelain bottoms and plastic tops. Some of them are oven-safe and large enough to cook in. In those cases, you can simply store the leftovers in the same thing you cooked in.

Although these "combo containers" are designed to be air- and liquid-tight, they often don't seal quite as tightly as the best all-plastic wares. But given the health advantages of food-on-glass storage vs. food-on-plastic storage, the tradeoff seems more than acceptable.

The glass and porcelain containers are usually microwave-safe, too, though it's usually best to microwave the dish covered with a plate or paper towel rather than the plastic lid.

Stainless steel cookware is also a good choice. If you cook something in a small or medium pot on the stove and have leftovers, why not just put the lid on, let it cool, and then put the pot right in the fridge? It will mean one less thing to wash, too.

These non-plastic types of containers are usually for sale at the nearest Mega-Mart, supermarket, or department store.

But for some types of food storage requirements, there is also a free solution. For small and medium storage needs, the glass food jars that you would otherwise throw out or recycle make great storage containers once they have been washed and the label removed. Jars with a minimal amount of constriction in the neck -- like peanut butter jars -- work best. A nice feature of these freebie containers is that you can easily see what's in them when they're in the refrigerator. No more rooting through a myriad of opaque containers to find what you're looking for.

Is it still OK to use plastic food containers at all?

It's quite reasonable to have a mix of glass and plastic in your fleet of containers. Use the plastic for "non-liquidy" foods when you have them, and use glass or porcelain containers for the rest. As the plastic containers wear out, and they all do, you can transition to "more glass, less plastic."

If you do continue to use plastic storage containers, you should at least stop microwaving food in them. There is, however, one place you DON'T want to use glass storage containers: in the freezer. Crack!

The threat of chemicals from plastic-ware getting into your food and then into your body may not rise to the level of threat posed by, say, eating a bicycle on a dare, but it's a good idea to slowly transition away from plastic storage. The only downside: you'll no longer be able to say, "Uh, thanks, Grandma, but I can't eat any of the leftover okra-rhubarb lasagna because you put it in a plastic container."

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com.

© 2004 Mark Jeantheau

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