Plastic foodware is unavoidable, whether it’s dishware, cutlery, food storage, or take-out containers. Safety concerns arise because chemicals can migrate into the food.
Generally, plastics with recycle numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are safer choices and don’t contain BPA. Numbers 3 and 6 leach dangerous chemicals. Number 7 is a catchall including polycarbonate (containing BPA) and relatively safe products like Tritan and bio-based plastics. What about plastics without a number? Err on the side of caution and don’t use them, says Hong-Sheng Wang, Ph.D., of the Department of Pharmacology and Cell Biophysics at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. Chemical migration is more likely when microwaving, dishwashing, and reusing old plastic.
When choosing between nylon and silicone kitchenware, silicone’s record is safer because of its greater stability and higher melting point. Studies show silicone nipples and pacifiers are safe.
Melamine is a hard plastic containing formaldehyde. The FDA considers it safe; however, it leaches chemicals when exposed to food that’s acidic or more than 160 degrees.
“BPA-free” labels typically mean that BPA was replaced with a substitute, including BPS. A study from Wang’s lab compared the cardiac toxicity of BPS to BPA: The effects were virtually identical. Unfortunately, BPA is still used to line many food and beverage cans. Wang warns, “Studies have shown that after consuming canned food, research participants’ BPA level goes up measurably.” Also, the longer you store liquid in a polycarbonate container, he adds, the higher the concentration of BPA in the liquid.
Naila Khalil, Ph.D., of the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University, agrees that BPA and its substitutes may not be safe, especially for children. Although the FDA feels typical BPA exposure is safe, many studies have shown that even at very low exposure, BPA and some other chemicals can have a measurable biological effect, known as endocrine disruption; our endocrine system controls virtually every process, including metabolism, immune function, reproduction, intelligence, and behavior.
Some chemicals cross the placenta and pass through breast milk; some (like BPA) are eliminated while others accumulate in our bodies. Because of this, Khalil ascribes to the Precautionary Principle: If there is evidence of harm, and in the absence of scientific evidence of safety, “we should take it as a warning sign and step away from it.”
Wang suggests making educated choices and using a balanced approach. If it’s possible and practical, avoid plastic foodware. Better choices are stainless steel and preferably glass.