How Safe is Child's Food in Plastic Lunch Box? Reusing Risks, Health Concerns & Uses
Created by Anurima Updated on Jan 13, 2020
Precaution is better than cure ~ Edward Coke
Plastic, a product found in each and every household, whether in the form of a bag, a bottle or a container. We all are aware of the damage plastic can cause to the environment as it is a product that takes years to decompose. We all are aware that the chemicals from the plastic can find their way into the food chain causing health hazards but how often do we stop to think any of the following?
- Are the plastic containers that we use on a daily basis safe for heating and storing food?
- Do they have an age, after which using those containers or water bottles are unsafe for use?
- What are the health risks associated with the continuous use of plastic containers?
I may not be aware of the exact answers to any of the above questions but when I look at some of the plastic containers in the kitchen, very often the questions flood my mind. I often refill and reuse packaged drinking water bottles (I am a firm believer in recycling) as I find them convenient to use within the house or carry along when stepping out. But there have been a couple of times when I noticed a strange odor in the water and It is then, that I decided to find for myself, when should we discard the plastic that we use on a daily basis.
What are the Commonly Used Plastics in Every Household?
Plastic is used in packaging food products all over the world from milk to fresh vegetables. The following are commonly used plastics, which are considered to be safe when in contact with a food item. The numbers and symbols are standards set by the FDA (U.S Food and Drug Association) and one may see below most of the plastic products available in the local market in India.
- Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET: Most of the carbonated drinks, packaged drinking waters and juices are packed in PET bottles. They are known to have better gas containing properties than other plastics.
- High-Density polyethylene or HDPE: This type of plastic is used to line milk and juice cartons. They have known for their moisture-resistant properties.
- Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC: These are commonly seen in Cling wraps, which we use to wrap food products. They are strong and allow oxygen to pass through thereby keeping the food fresh for longer.
- Low-Density polyethylene or LDPE: These are very similar to HDPE but are more flexible. They are used to make squeeze bottles (for example; soft bottles used to store ketchup in fast food joints) and tubes (for example; mayonnaise sold in tubes).
- Polypropylene or PP: They are used for products that are bottled hot and then allowed to cool. This type of plastic can stand high temperatures and do not melt easily. Products such as ketchup and other sauces are packed in bottles made from PP.
- Polystyrene or PS: They are excellent insulators and are commonly used to make coffee cups (little plastic cups which we drink coffee in from take away stands) and egg cartons.
- Other: This group includes materials such as acrylic, fiberglass, nylon, and polycarbonate. These materials are not commonly used in packaging food. Therefore, products containing any of the above materials need to have a specific mention of it being a ‘food-grade’ product.
How Do We Spot a Food Grade Plastic?
The standards set for plastic usage for food and non-food products by the FDA are universally accepted. Food grade plastic should not contain dyes or recycled plastic, which are considered harmful to humans. All plastic plates, tumblers, containers, buckets, bottles should have a symbol at the bottom denoting the material used in their manufacture. This is done to ensure that people can easily recognize whether the product is safe when it comes in contact with food. [Check - How to Choose Safe Toys, Identify Unsafe Toys & Health Risks for Child?]
- Safety: Products with the following symbols can be safely used with food. No known health concerns have been associated with them.
- Use with Caution: Products with the following should not be reused or exposed to high temperatures such as hot water or used in the microwave.
- Avoid: The products with the following symbols should be avoided as they are known to be toxic and may cause serious health issues if used regularly with food.
In addition to avoiding the use of products with the above symbols, we may also avoid using plastic products without any symbols or indications of what type of plastic has been used to manufacture it.
Brining and Marinating
It is a common practice in many households and food-service joints to marinate or brine (salt-water solution) meat/fish in large plastic buckets. When the food-grade status of a product is not known, it should never be used for handling, storing or heating food. Brining or marinating may release acid and fats from the meat, which reacts with the plastic it is stored in and consequently, the food can pose serious health risks when consumed.
The following needs to be completely avoided for brining or marinating food in large quantities...
- HDPE containers, mostly white in color and with unknown food-grade status
- Garbage cans
- Buckets used for mopping
- Pet food or cat litter buckets
- Buckets or cans used to store detergents
- Garbage Bags
- Household storage containers
And any container (even food-grade ones) which has been used to store products such as paints, chemicals or detergents. A few other symbols commonly seen on food-grade plastics are:
Are Any Risks in Reusing Take Away Containers & Disposable Cutlery?
The answer is yes!
- Containers that we get take away food in from restaurants should be discarded after the food has been transferred. It is very common for people (including myself) to reuse those containers time after time. Ideally, the food should be transferred into a ceramic or a glass bowl immediately after it is brought home. Then it can be stored in the fridge or reheated. Leaving the food in the same container especially when it is warm, may make it react with the plastic. Washing and reusing those containers should also be avoided as they are only for one time use and need to be discarded.
- We may also be easily tempted to reuse disposable crockery, cutlery and plastic cups. Those are again meant for one-time use and may pose a risk to one’s health if reused as the plastic will not be able to withstand the repeated heating and washing making the chemicals leach into the food.
What Are the Health Concerns of Reusing Plastic Containers?
- Bisphenol A or BPA is one of the main chemicals used in the making of water bottles. Research has shown that BPA can leach into the water or food from the container. Exposure to BPA can lead to cancer, obesity, diabetes, immune disorder and hyperactivity.
- BPA is also found on baby bottles. They are effective in making the bottles resistant to bacteria. However, long term exposure may have harmful effects on an infant’s health.
- Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC found in Cling wraps and similar products which are used to wrap food are believed to be harmless as they contain very low levels of chemicals. However, heating a food wrapped in PVC cover may allow the chemicals to mix in with the food. Long term exposure to the chemicals may result in serious health issues.
How to Safely Use Plastic Containers?
The following are the tips to safely use and maintain plastic containers.
- First, familiarize yourself with the codes: Look out for the safety codes under the plastic products and also avoid products containing BPA.
- Limit Heating Food in Plastic in the Microwave: ‘Microwave safe’ products are also proven to release very little chemicals into the food. Glass or ceramic bowls are better alternatives.
- Wash by Hand: All plastic containers may not stand the heat when washed in a dishwasher. Hand washing them is always a better alternative.
- Freezing: Only containers safe for freezing can be used in a freezer. All plastics cannot stand the extreme temperature and may deteriorate if frozen, making chemical pass onto the food.
- Always Avoid Direct Contact of Food with Plastic Wrap: Heating food with cling wrap may make the wrap melt. You may use a paper towel instead.
- Watch out for Wear and Tear: Containers should be replaced at the first sign of them discoloring, turning cloudy or developing cracks.
- Use Clear Plastic Over Colored Ones: Clear plastics are safer than colored ones. Colour from the plastic can easily leach into the food, especially when the food is hot.
- Sterilizing and Use Baby Bottles: Baby bottles may be sterilized according to the instructions and allowed to cool down before pouring in the liquid.
- Non-reusable Containers: Plastics designed for single-use should be discarded after one use. These types of plastics are not intended for repeated use and they may breakdown releasing chemicals if reused. Heating liquids or pouring a hot liquid into soft drink/mineral water bottles may melt the plastic from within and allow chemicals to leach into the liquid. On a couple of occasions, I have poured some fresh tamarind chutney into one. A safer option is to crush and recycle them.
- When in doubt about whether a plastic container is food grade or not, you may avoid using it for food and may consider discarding it.
How to Remove Food Odor & Stains From Plastic Containers?
- Mix one tablespoon of baking soda, mix well with warm soapy water. Cover and leave it overnight in the container.
- Wash the container with warm soapy water. Hot water may help retain the odor.
- You may also use some vinegar mixed with cold water. This mixture may be left for 4-5 hours and then rinsed.
- The containers may be left out under direct sunlight to dry thoroughly.
- If the stains or odors do not go away after this, you may need to discard the container.
A Few Important Facts About Plastic Storage Containers
Also, consider the following facts while using or purchasing plastic containers.
- Not all HDPE containers are food grade.
- Polypropylene or PP is ideal for making lids and covers as it has high tensile strength. PP is considered among the safer plastics due to its high melting points. Ketchup, chutneys, and sauces are normally packaged in PP containers. PP is used in products such as Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers.
- Recycled plastic safe for humans is used to manufacture food-grade plastic containers.
Little changes can go a long way in ensuring good health and good habits among our children and the family.
Image & Information Credit:
| Jun 24, 2013
Dear Preethi. Tupperware is a good brand, however, in my research for the blog, I have come across a fact that over time there is definitely some amount of seepage from the plastics into the food especially when the food is hot. To be on the safe side, you may heat the food in a glass bowl or on the gas in a steel vessel. Plastic containers do not pose any risk when cold food (when food is completely cooled and then transferred into them) is stored in them in the refrigerator or for storing dry ingredients such as uncooked rice, dal etc.
| Jul 09, 2013
Dear Arthy, tupperware is undoubtedly a good brand and you may use the bottles. However, if you notice signs of discoloration, wear & tear or if the bottles suffer any damage (dents or melts due to heat), you know its time to replace them! Moreover, it is important not to pour in hot liquids into the bottles.
| Oct 14, 2013
Good article!! Indeed plastic utensils should not be used to store or carry hot food because it has been proved that on heating chemicals of plastic seep into the food which are cancerous. Best to use are metal containers like steel, bronze, copper coated like the ones our grandparents have used in our villages. They pose lesser risk.
| Dec 04, 2013
Very informative and useful blog. what about the lunch boxes of our kids of any brand, whether safe because in the morning when the lunch is packed its pretty hot and as per this blog the chemical available in the plastic may cause health hazards to our kids.... kindly explain
| Dec 12, 2013
Dear Monika, as suggested in the blog, you may use white or light coloured plastic boxes as the chances of chemicals leaking into the food are greatly reduced. The reason being, coloured boxes need more chemicals for the colours whereas white boxes do not have any harmful dyes. Another alternative could be that you prepare the food and leave it to cool a little before putting it into the lunch box. This also reduces the chances of the temperature affecting the components in the box. Please ensure to discard the lunch box at the first signs of wear and tear. Keeping these points in mind helps reduce exposure to the chemicals in plastic boxes. I understand how important a role plastic containers play in our day to day lives. Hope this helps Monika.
| Jan 24, 2014
No matter even the best brands of plastic have the ill effects to some extent. It is our responsibility to avoid the usage as much as possible. Dont know why government takes no steps to ban the manufacture of plastics when the usage poses health issues as well as environmental hazards. When plastic is not available, people dont use them. Plastic covers used in curry points specially is dangerous as they r of low quality with hot stuff inside!. Lets all join hands to avoid the usage or atleast mimnimise .. Poor animals n birds also suffer from human deeds by throwing this waste into water sources. Tip: stick to good old methods of packing, eating and dispensing. Use. Ceramic/ porcelain or glass for reheatin in microwave. For kids dont use them for any purpose. Stiick to alternatives , they too will carry that habit forward.
| Jul 04, 2014
Dear Toshi, here is a link with the symbols and names of each type of plastic. Believe me, it doesnt take time to memorize them :) Have a look here: http://www.zerowaste.sa.gov.au/at-home/recycle-right/what-do-the-numbers-and-symbols-on-plastics-mean
| Jul 04, 2014
Dear Deepti, the colder the food is before you move it to a plastic container, the better. Hot food may cause the chemicals from the plastic to leak into the food. So if you can wait for the food to cook down completely before transferring it into the plastic container, then please do so :)
| Sep 19, 2014
Thanks Anurima for very informative blog. I love reading this article and got worried about my and my family health. I am thinking of replacing my office lunch with steel ones. I am currently using tupperware for fruits and lunch. Please confirm whether it is ok to carry fruits in tupperware/signaware. What about curd? Is it ok to use tupperware plastic box in microwave at office? Because we have plastic plates in our office. So for heating the food, either we have to use tupperware or office plastic plates. We store dry items (such as sooji, daliya, rice etc) all in plastic boxes, would it be fine to store these items in plastic boxes. I feel that it is very difficult to get rid of plastic bags/box from kitchen as we are so dependent on them.
| May 07, 2015
Please look for the following in a plastic containers/ storage - BPA free, Grade 5 and also ask for virgin plastics. All the qualities ensure that the plastic that we use is of a very high quality and non toxic. These products will be little premium but very safe and reliable. Very few brands are available in india.
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