Safe storage practices are just as important as knowing how to safely prepare, serve, or preserve food. Most kitchens contain an assortment of containers, wraps, and bags for storing food either short- or long term. These items may be glass, plastic, silicone or metal. How do we know if a container is appropriate and safe for storing our foods?
To begin, all food products should be stored in food-grade containers. Food-grade is a regulatory term used to specify materials and products that are suitable and safe to come into contact with food and beverages at any point in the field-to-consumer chain. To be certified as a food-grade, food-safe material, the material undergoes extensive testing to insure that the material does not affect the color, odor, taste, or safety of the food or leach substances into the food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory agency responsible for determining the safety of materials for food use. It is important to note that a food-grade material is only considered food-safe if it is utilized per its intended use.
Safe Food-Grade Container Options
Glass, stainless steel, and ceramic – These materials are non-reactive and non-toxic. They are easily sanitized and offer the most longevity. These materials are sturdy and heat-tolerant and do not release chemicals or toxins into food. Further, they are inert and do not react with natural chemicals or dyes found in food. Food and beverages stored in these containers stay fresh longer. Glass and ceramic can be microwaved; all three can be heated in the oven and placed into the dishwasher. These materials are eco-friendly; glass is especially so being 100% recyclable. Some cons of these materials include weight, breakability (glass and ceramic), cost, bulk, and lack of portability.
Plastic – There are many reasons to use plastics: inexpensive, lightweight, hard to break, stackable, and readily available. While there are many plastic choices, one must choose wisely. Experts caution us against using plastics in general, and in particular older plastics, or re-using one-time-use plastics from purchased foods. Although plastic containers are convenient, many may contain BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical that blocks and interferes with hormones leading to health issues. BPA is a big concern in older plastics or plastics that are scratched or heated in the microwave.
Any plastic used should be microwave safe, dishwasher safe, and BPA-free. Plastic products are typically labeled with a number surrounded by the recycling symbol. These numbers and labels identify both the type of resin used to make the plastic and the product’s recyclability. Associated with the different types of resin are potential health risks. The Smart Plastics Guide provided by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) summarizes seven different types of commonly used plastics, product examples, recyclability, and potential health risks.
Safe plastic numbers include 2, 4, and 5. These containers can store food without any toxic chemical infiltration and include the HDPE, LDPE, and PP materials. Containers with the number 7 are made of polycarbonate (the category that includes BPA), so should not be used with food. Plastics bearing numbers 1, 3, and 6 are single-use-only containers or bottles.
So what about those easy-to-pick-up plastic containers available at retailers or our long-held Tupperware®? Check to make sure they are labeled with one of the safe plastic numbers, BPA-free, and dishwasher and microwave safe. According to its website, Tupperware® items sold in the US and Canada have been BPA-free since March 2010; containers prior to 2010 should be disposed of as should any other older containers that do not display numbers 2, 4, or 5, contain BPA, and are not dishwasher and microwave safe.
Since plastic does not have the longevity of glass or stainless steel, food safety experts encourage swapping out plastic containers frequently and especially if there is any discoloration, odor, or a change in taste when using the container. When plastic containers become scratched, stained, or damaged, they begin to pose a food safety risk by harboring bacteria and other harmful microorganisms that can contaminate food.
Silicone – Per the FDA, food grade silicone is safe and will not react with other materials or release hazardous compounds or fumes when heated. Food-grade silicone is safe to store food, put in the microwave, freezer, oven, and dishwasher without hardening, cracking, peeling, or becoming brittle as it is resistant to extreme temperatures. It is made without petroleum-based chemicals, BPA, BPS, PVC, latex, lead, phthalates, or fillers. It will not leak, break down, or degrade over time. Silicone containers are available in many forms, lightweight, easy to transport, and considered a non-hazardous waste.
Cautions with silicone storage containers include limited studies on the long-term health effects of using silicone products as they are fairly new to the market. And while silicone is not a hazardous waste, it can only be recycled at special recycling centers.
All containers should provide a secure, air-tight seal.
As we strive to provide fresh, flavorful, and safe food for our families, it is important to store our food properly. Make choosing an appropriate food-grade storage container a priority to keep your food safe and fresh in the pantry, freezer, or refrigerator.
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- How Often to Replace Food Storage Containers, Southern Living
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- Proper Food Storage is a Food-Safety Must, University of Florida Extension
- National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth Smart Plastics Guide, Public Broadcasting System
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