The Safest (And Least Safe) Food Storage Containers
BPA-free plastic, glass, silicone… There are so many options out there for food storage, but some are safer than others. Our exposure scientist, Dr. Samantha Radford, helps you choose what’s best for you and your family.
Food storage containers are part of our everyday lives. Whether you’re putting away leftovers, packing lunches or preparing meals, you’re bound to need boxes and bowls for food.
But there are so many options out there! Perhaps you’ve inherited your mom’s old plastic bowls or have been eyeballing the trendy new silicone storage bags. Maybe you have glass containers, but they’re heavy and you’re afraid of your kids dropping and breaking them. What to do?
Here at The Tot, we have your family’s best interest in mind. That’s why we want to help you find the safest (and most practical) food storage options possible for everything, from your homemade baby food to your kindergartner’s school lunch. In this article, we’ll discuss:
- The food storage ingredients you definitely want to avoid
- When you’ll want to replace food storage containers
- The safest food container options for your family
Containers to avoid
My biggest suggestion is to avoid hand-me-down, “vintage” plastic storage bowls like Tupperware. Tupperware from the’70s has tested to have high levels of lead and arsenic. In addition, Tupperware didn’t claim their containers were BPA-free until 2010, so you should get rid of anything older.
Make sure none of your plastic storage containers are made from polycarbonate (recycling symbol #7). Polycarbonate is one of the most toxic plastics out there and has no place near food.
If you choose plastic (including newer bowls), high density polyethylene (HPDE), low density polyethylene (LDPE), and polypropylene (PP) are safer choices because they generally don’t need plasticizers like bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates.
However, recycling streams sometimes get cross-contaminated (for example, something labeled recycling code #7 might accidentally get processed with something labeled with code #1). That means the dangerous chemicals in more toxic plastics might end up in “food-safe” plastics during the recycling process.
Just because a container is labeled as BPA-free doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. For example, a similar substitute called BPS may be used instead. BPS behaves similarly to BPA and also causes toxic health effects. But because consumers are less familiar with it, manufacturers often get away with using it.
While most glass containers are okay, you need to be aware of contamination in crystal. Old crystal bowls and glasses are often leaded to give them extra sparkle. Acidic foods tend to leach lead from these containers.
So while you may love the fancy punch bowl that you inherited, we recommend displaying it instead of using it for serving. And definitely don’t leave leftovers in crystal for storage overnight.
Want to learn more about why we avoid lead, phthalates, and other harmful chemicals? Read here to find out more about the chemicals we avoid.
When not to use plastic containers
If you’re reading all this and wondering if you need to toss every plastic bowl in your home, take a breath. There are some instances where you might be okay to use plastic.
Toxic chemicals like BPA, phthalates, or heavy metals need a way to cross from a plastic bowl to your food. They don’t just “jump” from one place to another.
Dry foods don’t give much of an opportunity for chemicals to travel from one place to another. So if you have cooled, leftover cookies for example, these are unlikely to absorb chemicals off the surface of a plastic storage container.
You need liquid to allow plasticizers to cross into food. Acidic liquids, like tomato sauce or fruit juice, can leach chemicals more easily than neutral liquids like water. Creamy liquids, like potato soup or a cheese sauce, also allow BPA, phthalates, and other toxic chemicals to leach out more (because these chemicals are lipophilic, or fat-loving).
So the rule of thumb is this: Don’t store soups, sauces, or pastas in cream sauce in plastic bowls. For those, stick to glass. And never reheat these foods in plastic.
Signs your containers need to be replaced
No matter what material or age your storage bowls are, these telltale signs indicate they need to be replaced:
Your bowls are stained
Stained plastic bowls often happen when you reheat foods like chili or spaghetti sauce in them. Staining tells you damage has happened to the bowl’s surface. Components (often oils or fats carrying orange pigments from tomato sauce) have moved from the food into the surface of the bowl. And if chemicals can leach in, they can also leach back out into the food.
Your bowls are scratched
Again, a compromised surface allows chemicals to cross from the container into food more easily. Toss these.
Your bowls are chipped
Just like scratches, chips in plastic and glass bowls allow more leaching to occur. Besides, once glass is chipped, it is more vulnerable to further breakage and could then cut someone.
The safest food storage options
If you’re wondering how to replace your storage bowls (and bags) for something safer, we’ve got you covered! Here are some great options:
The Austin Baby Collection has some adorable Bento Box sets with a place mat and bib, perfect for toddlers on the go. These silicone sets are free of lead and other heavy metals.
Aegi makes beautiful ceramic storage bowls that are BPA, phthalate, and lead free. Plus, they have silicone lids so you don’t have to worry about chemicals leaching from plastic components.
Zip Top makes reusable silicone storage bowls and bags, perfect for meal prep or for packing lunches. Best of all, they’re dishwasher and freezer-friendly.