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.
Is there a potential health downside to using all this plastic to store our food? And do chemicals leach into our food from the plastic storage containers? We'll discuss that, and suggest a few options for non-plastic food containers, some of which will even save you money.
Recently, 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 to pick up plastic molecules:
1. The more liquid a food is, the more it touches the plastic, so the more opportunity it has to pick up plastic molecules.
2. Acid foods, such as tomato sauce, appear to be particularly interactive with plastic.
3. 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, 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 and are best avoided.
So, if plastic food containers are sometimes trouble, 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 to its own molecules and does not let them go floating off into the food or drink touching the container. On this score, glass is the best choice, followed closely by porcelain, ceramic, and stainless steel.
Even though plastic food containers are dominant on store shelves, some companies do make storage containers from glass and other preferred materials. 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. Some of the containers are smaller and more appropriately sized for small portions of leftovers and items transported to work or school for lunch.
Some containers have glass lids that fit loosely, fine for storing in the fridge, but not so good for putting leftovers in a lunchbox. Other containers have lids designed to be air- and liquid-tight, making them good for just about any type food storage. Having a good assortment of containers will allow you to choose the right size and style for each food-storage application.
All glass, ceramic, and porcelain containers are microwave-safe, though you should check the manufacturer's specifications before assuming they are safe for use in a regular oven. Plastic lids should be left off even when heating in a microwave. Our experience shows that the heat from the food tends to warp the lid. It's better to microwave the dish covered with a plate or microwave food cover.