Plastics and food

Are chemicals from plastic food containers and wrapping as safe as the industry and regulators claim or are they slowly poisoning us?
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06.What you can do

Most food and drink is packaged in containers made from plastics that seem to be harmless (see table). Soft drinks and bottled water are usually in PET bottles, for example, while yoghurt and margarine containers are usually made from polypropylene. There’s clearly no real need for food manufacturers to use packaging or wrapping made from polycarbonate or PVC, but there are still far too many products in the supermarkets where the food is in contact with these potentially harmful plastics (see Some Products to Avoid). But there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to them.

  • You can often identify the type of plastic from its identification code – unfortunately, this code is voluntary and you won’t find it on all plastic packaging. Look for the codes 1 (PET), 2 (HDPE), 4 (LDPE), 5 (PP) and 6 (PS). Whenever possible avoid foods or beverages that have been in contact with plastics with the symbol 3 (PVC) or 7 (a catch-all category that includes polycarbonate).
  • Avoid fresh meat, fruit or vegetables wrapped in cling wrap. Most cling wrap sold for domestic use is now made from low density polyethylene (4), which seems to be safe. But supermarkets and many independent butchers and greengrocers are still wrapping meat and fresh vegetables in cling wrap made from PVC.
  • Avoid reusable plastic bottles with the symbol 7 (or look for product labels that say “BPA-free”). Keep in mind that heating and washing polycarbonate bottles can increase the amount of BPA that leaches out.
  • Consider cutting down on canned foods, as can linings can leach BPA directly into food.
  • While some plastics such as polypropylene (often used for take-away containers) seem to be OK, as a general rule it’s probably safer to avoid using any plastic containers when cooking or reheating food in a microwave oven. Use glass containers for high-fat foods, as toxic chemicals are more likely to migrate into fatty foods at high temperatures. Some of the microwaveable ready meals CHOICE tested (see Time-critical food) were in polycarbonate containers – definitely not a good choice.

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