Is It Safe to Store Food in Takeout Containers?

Plastic is everywhere. But are you risking your health by using these common containers? Plastic containers release small chemicals into stored foods and liquids. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical commonly used to make clear, tough plastic bottles and food can liners, can leach or migrate from baby bottles and waters bottles into the liquid and then enter the bloodstream.

This chemical migration may be unavoidable. Whenever you use any kind of plastic food container, tiny amounts of plastic are transferred into the food. The amounts are very small, but there is still a lot of debate in the scientific community about whether these trace amounts are problematic.

The federal Food and Drug Administration, which regulates plastic packaging chemicals like BPA, recently announced that its safety review shows BPA is safe at current levels in food.Some US states, on the other hand, intends to add BPA to the state list of harmful chemicals, based on findings that BPA can cause reproductive health problems in laboratory animals.

The controversy over BPA in plastic bottles is not over, and there is no consensus as to whether it is safe or not as currently used. If you want to avoid exposure to plastic packaging chemicals, do some research. Many containers have markings that tell you which chemicals it was made with.

If you want to stay away from BPA, avoid containers with the number 7 or the letters PC on them. That means they were made with polycarbonate.

If a container has a number 3 or the letters PVC, it contains polyvinyl chloride, part of a class of chemicals called phthalates. Researchers believe phthalates may leach from plastic containers into our food, like BPA does. Although there is no consensus on how or how much leaching occurs, people who want to avoid phthalates should not store food in a container with a ‘3’ or the letters ‘PVC’ on it.

If it has a number 1, it’s a single use container. In that case, use it once and then recycle it or throw it away.

With food that such as roast chicken that comes in its own carry-out container, remove food from takeout containers and store it in your own BPA-free or polycarbonate-free containers. Regardless of the type of container they come in, don’t leave your leftovers on the counter for too long.

It’s best to wrap up food up airtight or seal it in an airtight container. This helps keep bacteria out. Then put it in the refrigerator. You can keep leftovers in the fridge for as long as three to four days.

The short answer: No, not all of them. Time to scour your cupboard and root out those old plastic containers, cups and sports bottles.

The Issue

Recent studies have suggested that a chemical called bisphenol-A (a.k.a. BPA) — which is found in plastic containers — is hazardous to your health. This chemical is in some plastic baby bottles and “sippy” cups, transparent water bottles, harder plastic containers and the lining of canned foods. Studies have linked BPA to brain damage, immune deficiencies, behavioral issues and metabolic abnormalities. Although the FDA still claims BPA is safe, do you really want to put your family or yourself at risk?

Determining If You Have BPA Containers

Polyethylene and polypropylene are alternative plastics that researchers have determined are safe. Glass and stainless steel are other safe alternative as well. If you are not sure which chemical is in your containers, check the recycling code. On containers made with polyethylene, you will see the number 2 in a small triangle on the bottom. You’ll see the number 5 on polypropylene containers. The number that you don’t want is 7, which tends to appear on BPA-containing plastics. It is a catch-all category for plastics, however. Generally, if the plastic is hard (like on clear sports bottles), you should err on the side of caution and assume it has BPA in it — unless the manufacturer or packaging specifically says it’s BPA-free.

Handling Your Plastics

The safest choice is avoiding plastic containers totally. If you’re unwilling to give up plastic food containers (we know how convenient and pervasive they are), avoid heating foods in them or freezing them — unless they say they’re freezer- or microwave-safe. Also hand wash these containers; don’t clean them in the dishwasher. Since acidic foods tend to leach out more chemicals, store your tomato sauces and lemonades in BPA-free containers. As for your canned foods, Eden Foods makes BPA-free cans. Or you can opt for frozen choices instead.

If you do find some offenders, you may not want to overload your trash with them (since most won’t be recyclable). Consider using them to organize and store non-food items. I have some of those old souvenir plastic cups; rather than drink from them, I stash pens and pencils in them on my desk.

Unsure if your plastics are safe? If you know the brand, call the manufacturer to ask them directly — you should be able to find a customer service number on the packaging or online.