Guest blogger: Heated plastic

I love reading Mrs. Q’s blog and I love the attention it is bringing to school lunches! I am also an elementary teacher in a public school system. I teach in a year round school and I am always thankful for our students who get to come to school during the summer and don’t have to worry about being home alone and finding something to eat. In our cafeteria, the children serve themselves (all food is presented buffet-style). This was a shock to me when I started teaching in this district. I am all for independent kids, but what about germs!?!? There are sneeze guards, but they don’t serve any purpose when the students are so short!

I have a 15 month old daughter, who attends daycare each day. While her daycare provides two snacks a day, the parents provide lunches for their own children. In addition to packing her lunch, I also elect to send in her snacks. Their menu for snacks includes things like raw carrots and dip (which she can’t eat yet), pancakes, cheese quesadillas, oyster crackers, juice, etc. We don’t give her juice and try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. I’m lucky that she’s a good eater so I send in things like fresh fruit, beans, garden-burgers, cheese, yogurt, scrambled eggs, frozen veggies, etc. I’m also trying to be environmentally-friendly so I try to limit the use of zip-top bags and pack her food in reusable plastic containers instead. My problem is that I can’t send in glass (for obvious reasons), so I use a lot of these containers – which get heated up in the microwave at her school, washed in the dishwasher at home, and reused again the following week.

So, now I’m concerned about the chemicals emitted from the heated plastic. That leads me to my question for you, Mrs. Q. Have you thought about the plastic film and packaging that appears to be covering almost all heated items in your cafeteria? I’ve done very little research in what plastics are the worst for emitting chemicals when heated, and maybe the plastic used on your students’ lunches is supposed to be safe (should we believe that???), but that was the first thing I noticed when I started reading your blog. According to this website containing explanations for each number code for plastics (http://ecovillagegreen.com/903/what-do-the-plastic-recycling-numbers-mean/), “food wrap” could be #3 or #4. It says #3 shouldn’t touch food. It also states that the plastic used in reusable containers (#5) is supposedly “safe” when heated. Plastic bags are definitely NOT supposed to ever be heated (I saw my daughter’s teacher do this once when preparing the lunches and I cringed).

This article is very comprehensive about plastics and food exposure: http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-testing/reviews-tests/kitchen-cooking/plastic-safety-heat-food It mentions that some #5 plastics (supposedly “safe”) tested positive for BPA. I would love any suggestions for containers I could use for my daughter’s meals because I am just not sure the reusable plastic containers are safe when heated. Are they going to discover another problem with another chemical in plastic in the future? I have thought about just serving her food cold. I’m not sure she’d mind and it would save a lot of worry on my end, but some food is just better warm. And, I think all children deserve the opportunity to eat good, healthy food – without added chemicals from plastics.

Mrs. S

***

Mrs. Q here — The school food I ate for six months usually came in sturdy little paper containers with something lining them and of course plastic over the top. I don’t like thinking about what chemicals line the containers. I don’t think those “ingredients” would show up on the standard blood tests!

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26 Responses to Guest blogger: Heated plastic

  1. Jen July 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Please understand that I am a bit biased about this situation. I am a chemist as is my husband, and he has actually worked on plastics for food products.

    I fully agree that we should all be cognizant of what our children are ingesting and what they are exposed to, as well as ourselves.

    But I also truly think that the media has really blown this type of situation out of proportion. Plastics are thoroughly tested prior to being sent to the consumer. If any chemicals are released, which almost always test below various limits set by regulatory agencies, they would be at much lower levels with each repeated use of the container.

    We seem to be getting to the point where there is nothing we can eat and no products that are considered safe. Everyone should weigh their options and do what is best for their families to the best of their abilities, but also live within their means.

  2. Katie July 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    Jen, I'm glad to see your comment here because I have always wondered how chemists and people who do this for a living viewed the panic over heated plastic tupperware.

    To the guest blogger: thanks for this entry, too. This is something that also occurred to me, as one of my first thoughts, when I began to read this blog regularly.

  3. Mrs. Q July 2, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    It's just one of those things that makes you go "hmmm." Plastics are still a "recent" invention so I'm not sure we'll have all the answers for…a long time.

  4. Rachel July 2, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    This is an issue I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I previously had my daughter in a daycare that served awful food (basically hamburger helper for lunch and really sugary cereals or frozen waffles for breakfast all the time), so I sent her lunch every day. I had a few BPA-free plastic containers, but from what I've read there are phthalates and other similar chemicals in all plastics, and they leach into the food when heated. So I switched all our plastics to glass bowl with lids that can go in the microwave and dishwasher safely. I got a bunch of them in various sizes at the corningware outlet store. I don't see why glass is a problem at all. The daycare workers would microwave her lunch for her, and then she would eat out of the bowl or they would dump it onto a plate for her to eat. One bowl got broken when a daycare worker dropped it on the floor, but other than that we never had an issue. I used glass baby bottles too, and we dropped those repeatedly and they never broke.

    The other issue is that the plasticized lining on those paper containers they use in cafeterias have phthalates in them as well, and the faster you heat them, and the hotter you get them, the more the chemicals are likely to contaminate the food. Steam is also a culprit for making the chemicals leach out. The other factor is the acidity of the food. This is also an issue in canned foods since the liners contain BPA, so canned foods like tomatoes and pineapple that are very acidic contain high levels of BPA. I basically just use frozen veggies and then don't heat them in the bag like some of the brands advertise, but I'm still looking for a safe alternative to canned tomatoes.

  5. lemontree July 2, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Kids usually don't mind eating cold soup or cold casseroles. I send my kids cold leftovers all the time. They don't mind at all. If you're intent on giving them hot food, you could heat it at home and send it in insulated containers. Would sending a paper plate be an option for reheating food on? Does the daycare have stoneware that you could request they use?

  6. Dawn July 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    I think at some point we got to stop worrying about every single thing that could harm us. Any one of us could step outside tomorrow and get hit by a car – then we're dead anyways.

    Being logical, after the plastic containers get made in the heat of the machines, I would think heating in them later would have minimal chemical leakage. If we eat off a plate, aren't we also possibly eating a tiny bit of the dishwashing liquid we cleaned them with? Some remains no matter how much rinsing and drying you do.

  7. Sarah July 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    To Rachel: You could "can" your own in glass mason jars. I preserve corn, tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, cucumbers, blueberries, plums, and summer squashes, every summer. I go to the farmers' market and stock up on the fruits and veggies in their peak and then can them.

    Tomatoes and peaches are the trickiest, because you have to peel them and that's not an easy task, but it's doable with some time and lots of boiling water and ice baths.

    As for plastics…well, I'm not so certain they are any worse than anything else. As far as the media is concerned everything with gives us cancer or prevents it. I say do what is best and most feasible for your family and if you're that worried, use glass or stone ware, skip the dishwasher and hand wash with cooler water, or wrap in foil and send in a reusable plate to heat on.

  8. Jenna July 2, 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    I do love to use plastic containers for freezing and storing foods (then I don't have to throw away saran wrap or ziplocs), I just don't put them into the microwave or dishwasher. Even if I really don't need to worry about it leaching chemicals I still worry it will end up melting to the racks. The heating and harsh cleaning seems to wear them out faster anyways.

  9. Amber July 2, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    Actually, the real Tupperware brand containers (not the other cheap brands you buy at discount stores) are quite safe. The products cost more, but if you are concerned about the chemical seepage, you ought to look into investing in quality plasticware. Yes, there are still "Tupperware ladies" and "Tupperware parties" worldwide, so a simple internet search should find a consultant in your area!

    And yes, I am biased. I am one of the new generation Tupperware ladies…

  10. M.F. Atkins July 3, 2010 at 1:11 am #

    My daughter packs her lunch most days. If I send something that needs to be eaten hot, I heat it up and send it in a thermos (all stainless steel). Target and Babies R Us sell them in kid-friendly designs. Where I teach (an elementary school) kids who pack do not have their lunches heated by anyone. They either have to bring it in a thermos or eat it cold. There are dozens of "Bento" sites that give ideas for packing cold lunches for kids that are healthy, fun and easy.

  11. Anonymous July 3, 2010 at 4:27 am #

    I love how, despite the VERY FIRST POSTER in the comments section being a chemist who knows firsthand about the effects of heated plastic, other Joes still insist that they've got the answers on the danger levels…

    Same goes for all the people last week who were pro- and anti-carb/sat. fat/etc who are not dietitians. It appears to me that everybody thinks they know everything, but the conflict arises when two know-it-alls are insisting two different things.

    Personally, I'd like to see more dietitians guest blogging about things that are CLEARLY matters of debate/confusion among our readers, just to finally get the records straight.

  12. Z. E. Accordino July 3, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. This is something my mom (and most of my extended family) have been worrying about recently.

  13. Carol July 3, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    I have personally thought about the plastics used in our society. I don't have any hard-fast facts or statistics, but it seems to me that since the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of plastics into our lives, the incidences of cancer, etc., have multiplied exponentially. I realize there are other factors that affect the statistics, as well, but in MY mind, I can't help but wonder about platics. Years ago, refrigerators were sold with a set of "refrigerator dishes" — glass storage containers. I have converted my household to using glass containers for refrigerator storage (I purchase refrigerator dishes online, at flea markets, antique shops, etc.). I have not yet resorted to transferring food items into glass containers (i.e., sour cream, cottage cheese), but that isn't too far down the road (I will eventually do the same with juice and milk). My lunches to work are taken in glass (pyrex) containers–I will sometimes have two or three glass containers, depending on what I have taken (salad, fruit, vegetables, etc.). Although the lids are plastic (and advertised as being BPA-free), I NEVER reheat any food item with the lid in place (or vented). I plan to invest in an all stainless steel thermos for soups, but for now, I have a Corelle 20-oz. "mug" with BPA-free lid in which I take my soups. I consider how food, etc., was contained prior to the introduction of plastics — refrigerator dishes (container AND lid is glass), glass canning/preserving, earthenware crocks, etc. I use only glass and stainless bowls when preparing food. Again, I purchase sets of Pyrex/FireKing/Anchor Hocking nesting bowls that were so popular 50 years ago (these bowls can be found inexpensively online, at flea markets, antique stores, local Goodwill stores, yard sales, etc.).

    @Jen I appreciate your being candid about your mixed feelings considering your chemist/chemical background. I feel, however, that the "plastics" industry is too new to really know the long-term affects of uses and I do feel, personally, that the introduction of plastics to lifestyles has affected our health. I do not believe that plastics were originally intended to be reheated and, thus, no research was done to prove or disprove the safety of the plastics. In what I have been able to see, statistically (and I realize more substantive research needs to be done), cancer rates have increased exponentially since the introduction of plastics. I realize that there has been research to disprove the health side effects of using plastics, etc.; however, I do not "trust" industry research statistics as I have seen all too often that results have been slanted and/or withheld in order to allow manufacturing/production to continue regardless of the real outcomes of that research.

  14. Ms.T July 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    For the last couple years my daughter has take a small Thermos with hot foods for her school lunch. I pre-heat the Thermos with boiling water then prepare the hot meal, put it in and it stays hot for many hours. Since she is in public school (they don't have microwaves for students) and refuses to eat the junk they serve for lunch, this is a good alternative for her. I can't see why that wouldn't work for others. 🙂

  15. Rachel July 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    @Sarah: I have thought about that, and a friend of mine grew so many tomatoes last year that she sliced them and froze them, and she says they made really good spaghetti sauce and chili even with the skins on. Maybe because they were sliced? So I'm trying to grow a lot of tomatoes this year too, and go the freezing route instead of canning. If we don't like those maybe next summer I'll get my mom to come help me/teach me how to can.

    @Amber: My cousin sells Tupperware and she told me that too. But according to the research I've read (mostly in medical journals) there's little difference, except that I believe Tupperware doesn't usually have BPA in it. And that's good, but some of the research regarding phthalates is really disturbing, and I'd just rather not use my kids as a guinea pig to test the comapny's claims.

    As to the "the media is making us panic about this stuff unnecessarily" theme that's resurfaced a few times in this thread… Pretty much everything I know about the topic comes from research done at universities, which admittedly conflict with the industry statements, but I think that's to be expected. Obviously it's in the best interest of the industry to paint concern over BPA and phthalates as a lot of silly little hysteria or the workings of conspiracy-theorists. And I get that. It just makes me less likely to listen to the industry voices. If places like John's Hopkins are doing research that shows a real connection between the chemicals that come from plastics and various diseases, then I think I'll just go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt. And even if they turn out to be wrong, what's the worst that has happened? People used glass containers for years, and it's no less convenient as far as I can tell. Your lunch is a little heavier and every once in a while you drop a glass container and it breaks. But I've replaced all the plastic containers in my kitchen with glass, and we've done pretty well with it for 2 years now, even with 2 small kids. And the bottom line is, glass is better for the environment.

  16. vegetarilin July 3, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    I too am very concerned about consuming food that has been heated in plastic. Usually I bring lunch to work in glass containers. Once in awhile I have something that doesn't fit or heat well in the containers I have and then bring it in a plastic container and heat it and eat it off a paper plate.

    I know it's not the most environmentally friendly solution but it does fit the need. Would your daughter's school be willing to transfer from the plastic to paper before heating?

  17. Prince Andrew and the Queen Mum July 3, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    funny..like Jen i have worked in plastics as has my husband. that has actually made me WAY more wary of warming things in the micro. never ever do plastic wrap. but even the micro (on a glass plate) can be an issue. you shouldn't be paranoid but consider thinking when you can send cold foods….OR..what about heating b4 school, sending in foil. I know there is the Al issue but if you are really concerned there you could wrap in paper and then foil. and there are OODLES of products out there to keep your items made a breakfast warm at lunch. Google for it. look for cutsy bento boxes that do that. (amazon has one.)

  18. Prince Andrew and the Queen Mum July 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    BPa is not hysteria…even industry plastic journals are writing about it.

  19. Dawn July 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Like Prince Andrew above said – heating on glass has its issues, heating with foil has it's issues, etc. Even heating on metal can have its issues – so we should throw away pots, glasses, etc just because of the tiniest slightest chance we get something in our system?

    Personally I believe it's all the antibacterial stuff that is marketed now making people sicker. Humans as animals were meant to deal with some germs and trying not to actually just ends up making people sick when they are contaminated because then we have NO immune system in which to fight it. It's like doctors who recommend letting a child just have a cold and not panicking – they need to form antibodies. It's the same with anything really.

    If you are so worried about cancer, better stop breathing as well since the smog levels in the air get higher each day.

  20. Rachel July 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Sure, but there are very big issues surrounding heating food in plastic, and this has been documented fairly well. It's not even comparable with heating food on glass. The research is out there, but I realize it's time-consuming to go through it, and not everyone has institutional access to the journals in which you'll find this stuff, which can make it difficult. That's no reason to scoff at other people's concerns. If you're not worried, then fine; serve your family out of whatever containers you feel safe with. But some of us prefer not to take the risk.

  21. Anonymous July 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    Remember that you need to look at the balance of benefits and costs! We were at a beach recently and a mom, being a 'good' conscientious mom, had packed yogurt parfaits for her kids in glass jars. Of course, first thing one of the kids does is drop a jar, and now you have broken glass all over the walkway to the beach. The mom picked up the big pieces, but that still created a far greater health risk than if she had used a plastic container.

  22. Rachel July 6, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    I thought this post was about using plastics to heat food in, which is rather different from carrying cold yogurt to the beach. And I sorta disagree that a bit of broken glass is more dangerous than endocrine-disruptors and carcinogens. In the short term? Sure. In the long term? Not even close.

  23. Jen July 7, 2010 at 5:09 am #

    Rachel,

    There is a brand of strained tomatoes and tomato paste sold in glass jars. They are organic, and a bit pricey. However, I could not continue to buy canned tomatoes after I saw them listed as one of the top ten foods the experts won't eat because of the acidity/BPA issue. I purchased them through a company called Tropical Traditions, but you may be able to find them in health food stores, or somewhere else local to you. Tropical Traditions has a free shipping day every month or two, and that is when I stocked up. The brand is Bionaturae, and they are excellent!

    I do plan to can or freeze my own this year, as I prefer to purchase food locally. I am a CSA member, and we have the option to purchase tomatoes in bulk for preserving.

  24. Anonymous July 7, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    Raachel: This is Anonymous from 7:39. I completely disagree with you. I wrote this post because the mom in question probably thought that plastic was so dangerous that she could not ever give her child something that had touched the material…and she did not think through the consequences. That mom was trying to protect her children from some possible long term harm but endangered both her children and everyone else on the beach.

    Please remember that glass cuts are quite dangerous. I've known several people who've had to make emergency room visits for stitches and tetanus shots from glass. My cousin's grandchild just got out of the hospital after weeks of treatment for a MRSA infection picked up from a tiny cut.

    No one should ever be giving a small child a glass container at the beach or a pool, just as no adult should be fool enough to be drinking a beverage from a glass bottle in those locations.

    Plastic became so popular, because there are immediate short term safety benefits to using unbreakable containers. Plastic is cheap, light and relatively unbreakable. Any alternative also needs to have these qualities.

  25. Rachel July 7, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    Anonymous,

    Sure, and I agree that we should be careful about using glass. But the choice is not "let all the kids run around with glass containers anywhere they want" versus "use plastics for everything, even heating food in the microwave." It's just not that simple. I use glass containers for taking leftovers that will be heated in the microwave, because the dangers of heating in plastic are very real and very well documented. My kids use stainless steel water bottles when we go to the beach or the zoo or wherever. If we do have something to eat in a glass container I have them sit down before I hand it to them, and ask them to stay seated while they eat out of it. But the fact is a pyrex bowl dropped from a seated position onto a beach towel on the sand isn't going to break. It's not like you have to let them walk around on the paved sidewalk with glass containers.

    The thing is, it really isn't that hard to use some basic common sense. I'm not advocating that we go spreading broken glass from here to kingdom come. But the off-chance that there will be a small amount of broken glass in the world doesn't counterbalance the risks involved in plastics. And plastic is terribly bad for the environment. The process of manufacturing and recycling plastic unavoidably produces some truly nasty chemicals. The glass manufacturing process is much cleaner, and stainless steel can be used for drinking containers and thermoses. The human race survived for centuries without plastics, and I hardly think we're all going to die from cuts from broken glass if we revert to some of the safer container materials.

  26. Dawn July 12, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    Rachel – Being honest, mankind also survived many years without glass as well. 🙂

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