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Is It Safe to Heat Food in Plastic?

Risky Numbers

The American Chemistry Council says there are no phthalates in plastic food containers or wraps. However, GHRI testing did find low levels in one wrap (and BPA in it and in three other products). If you want clues to the components of plastics, check the recycling codes on the bottoms of containers. Number 7 may contain BPA and 3 may contain phthalates. Generally, plastics with the numbers 1, 2, and 4 are OK; many experts say that containers marked 5 are too, but one of the BPA-containing items in our tests was labeled 5. Here are other steps you can take to protect your family: Cool food or liquids before putting them in a plastic container. (University of Cincinnati researchers found that baby bottles leached BPA into boiling water up to 55 times faster than into room-temperature water.) And avoid putting plastic items in the dishwasher; the detergent and heat break down the plastic, which may cause BPA, if it's present, to leach out.

How We Did Our Testing

plastic piecesWe all do it: Pop a plate of leftovers covered with plastic wrap in the microwave or warm up extra tomato sauce in a plastic container. But news reports have suggested that this may not be perfectly safe, that if there are chemicals — phthalates and BPA — in the plastic, they might migrate into our food. How likely is this? To find out, we shopped at supermarkets and mass merchandisers for leading brands of microwave-safe containers, wraps, and bags, and at a dollar store for some so-called value brands. We also tossed into our shopping cart packages of best-selling frozen dinners for both children and adults and plastic liners designed to be used in a slow cooker. In short, we gathered together a potpourri of the kind of plastic items most of us use for heating foods.

We shipped several samples of each item off to an independent lab, where they were shredded into bits, then analyzed to see if any detectable amounts of BPA and phthalates were present in the products. The good news: Twenty-seven of the products tested contained no phthalates or BPA. Three, however, did contain low levels of BPA: the containers (or bottom sections) of Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids, Rubbermaid Premier containers, and Glad Storage Zipper Bags; Glad Press'n Seal wrap had low levels of both phthalates and BPA. Next, the lab tested these four items with "food simulants" — chemicals designed to stand in for real food in a lab. (Our federal health agencies, like the FDA, allow the use of food simulants in testing.) Results: No detectable BPA or phthalates migrated from the products into the simulants.

For a real-life test, we microwaved Old World Style Ragú Traditional Smooth Pasta Sauce and Heinz Home Style Gravy Savory Beef in the two Rubbermaid containers and in a glass bowl covered with Press'n Seal. As you're unlikely to heat up tomato sauce or gravy in a plastic bag, we eliminated the Glad Storage Zipper Bags from this part of the testing. The lab first evaluated the foods straight from the jars to ensure that there were no phthalates or BPA present in the sauces before they were transferred to the test containers. In addition to testing foods heated in brand-new containers, we used ones that we had put through 30 rounds of microwaving and cleaning in the dishwasher, to see if wear and tear made a difference.

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