Is It Safe To Microwave Plastic Containers For Food?

By:    Published: February 10, 2012

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It’s late, you don’t feel like cooking so you pop a plastic container full of leftovers into the microwave. But instead of pulling a fast and easy dinner out of the microwave, you pull out a warped, melted container that may have contaminated your food.

Certain types of plastics aren’t meant to be microwaved and when they are, they can leak chemicals into your food and potentially cause harm to your health if ingested over a long period of time. But are all plastic containers created equal? Are some worse than others or is plastic safe to microwave in at all?

Chemicals In Plastic Containers Used For Food

Plastic is made from a combination of chemicals, some of which are harmful to your health. Some of the chemicals that raise concerns are:

  • BPA or bisphenol A – This chemical can mimic the hormone, estrogen, and has been linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Infants who are exposed to BPA are more likely to develop obesity or early onset puberty later in life. In the wake of these findings, many companies have removed BPA from their plastic products.
  • Phthalates – These chemicals are found in a variety of household products and are used to make plastics more flexible. Because of this, they’re sometimes referred to as “plasticizers”. Phthalates have been linked to the disruption of the reproductive system and the endocrine system.
  • Diethylhexyl adipate – This chemical is a phthalate and is often found in plastic microwave containers. Meat and fatty foods tend to help this chemical leak out of the plastic.

When you microwave your food, you aren’t just heating the food. You’re heating the plastic, and, in turn, the chemicals it contains.

The Dioxin Myth

Many myths and email hoaxes have been built from the claim that plastic releases dioxins when microwaved. Dioxins are another type of chemical that can be found in plastic and has also been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and problems with the reproductive system and the immune system. Certain types of plastic, such as PVC, can release dioxins into the air, but only in high temperatures. That’s because dioxins form in very high temperatures, much higher than would be found in a microwave. So if you’ve heard about the dioxin myth, don’t let it fool you. There isn’t any research to support this claim. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be leery of the other types of chemicals found in plastic.

Is There Any Plastic That Is Safe To Microwave?

While it may sound a little ominous, in truth, there are many ways to keep yourself safe from the dangers of plastic. The easiest way is to check the bottom of the container. If the words “microwave safe” are printed there, then the container is OK to microwave.

All plastic containers must meet the specific standards and regulations that the FDA has created and if they do, they can proudly wear the “microwave safe” label. In order to get that stamp of approval, plastic food containers must go through extensive testing to measure the amount of heat the container can endure, how long the container will stay in the microwave, how often the person will eat from the container, etc.

Containers are also tested for chemical leakage and if and how much of those chemicals can spread into food. According to Harvard Health, if the amount of chemicals leaked is 100 to1,000 times less per pound of body weight than the amount shown to harm lab animals in a lifetime of use, the plastic is deemed safe to microwave.

(To learn more about microwave health risks, read Microwave Health Risks: Are They Just Myths.)

Tips On Microwaving Plastic

Not every plastic can meet the FDA’s standards for microwave safety or receive the “microwave safe” label. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely unsafe, but it’s best not to heat those types of plastic in the microwave. Here’s a list of some of the types of plastic that you should avoid placing in the microwave:

  • Plastic storage bags and plastic grocery bags
  • Plastic butter, margarine or whipped topping tubs and yogurt containers
  • Plastic water bottles and takeout containers

Here are some other tips for microwaving plastic:

  • Don’t reheat containers that are meant for one-time use.
  • Make sure the container is well-ventilated.
  • Try not to microwave plastic wrap. If you must use it, make sure it does not touch the food as that can lead to the plastic melting into the food.

If you still have concerns about microwaving plastic, don’t use it at all. Use glass or ceramic containers instead. As an alternative to plastic wrap, use wax paper or paper towel.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be afraid to use plastic containers for microwaving, but you should definitely be smart about it. Make sure that the container you are using is microwave safe, or don’t use plastic at all. Use alternatives that don’t contain chemicals to ensure that your food, and your health, stays safe.

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