Microwaving food in plastic dangerous?

Almost every modern home has a microwave oven. It is a modern convenience to quickly scoop frozen food from the freezer and in a short time, food is ready to eat.

In fact, for many career women and eateries in big cities, it is seen as “almost impossible/pretty difficult” to do without as it ensures hot meals can be served quickly.

But despite the widespread use of microwave ovens and their excellent safety record, cooking food with microwaves somehow makes food less healthy by zapping away nutrients the body requires. In fact, the situation is far worse when the food is cooked or warmed in plastic containers.

“Microwaving food needs to be minimised, and if it cannot be avoided, it is better using a ceramic or glass container labelled for use in microwave ovens. It is double disservice using microwave and plastics because a chemical substance, BPA, which is dangerous to health is leaked into the food,” Dr Funmi Akinyele, Chief Executive Officer, Food Basket Foundation, Ibadan, said.

According to her, where heating food in plastics cannot be avoided, it is better to do it for a short period of time.

There’s no single substance called “plastic.” The term covers many materials made from an array of organic and inorganic compounds. Substances are often added to plastic to help shape or stabilise it.  For example, bisphenol-A (BPA) is added to make clear, hard plastic. Also, phthalates is added to make plastic soft and flexible.

The FDA long ago recognized the potential for small amounts of plasticizers to migrate into food. So it closely regulates plastic containers and materials that come into contact with food. But some with a microwave-safe icon or the words “microwave safe,” displayed on it are approved for use in microwave ovens.

However, that a plastic container has a microwave-safe icon or the words “microwave safe,” displayed on it is not tantamount that it is safe for human health.

“The manufacturer is only saying that it will not cause fire or damage to the microwave oven; they are not saying anything about what it will do to the food or your health,’ she  declared.

Unfortunately, plastic containers that are BPA and phthalates free are not too common in Nigeria. Such containers are not marked on the bottom with the letters “PC” or recycling label. Also, they are more expensive that those with BPA and phthalates in them.

Reports indicate that BPA and phthalates are “endocrine disrupters.” These are substances that mimic oestrogen, a human hormone, and which can interfere with growth and throw off normal hormonal interactions.

Animal studies, and a few human studies, have raised the possibility that exposure to BPA may cause reproductive problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

In comparison, Dr Akinyele said that the conventional ovens are better than microwave ovens in preparing meals.

“The cooking time of a conventional oven is far more than that of the microwave oven, but yet the conventional oven is 100 times better. And of course, you are still better doing away with putting the food in plastics,” she declared.

Even foods should not be warmed in disposable plastics often used in parties. “It is better such food is emptied into a ceramic or glass containers labelled for use in microwave ovens, “she added.

What about keeping hot foods in plastic coolers, drinking hot tea or coffee from a plastic cup? The expert discouraged their use, saying that there is  also the possibility of the plastic leaking into the hot food or drink, adding that food flasks with inner glass or metal or ceramic cups are better.

The danger from drinking sachet water or bottled water stored under the sun, she said, is similar.

“It is not a huge amount of these chemicals that the body takes in at a time, but over time, it gets accumulated in the body. So, we are causing damage to our body without knowing,” she declared.

Here are some things experts recommend to keep in mind when using the microwave:

  • If you’re concerned about plastic wraps or containers in the microwave, transfer food to glass or ceramic containers labelled for use in microwave ovens.
  • Don’t let plastic wrap touch food during microwaving because it may melt. Wax paper, kitchen parchment paper, white paper towels, or a domed container that fits over a plate or bowl are better alternatives.
  • Most takeout containers, water bottles, and plastic tubs or jars made to hold margarine, yogurt, and foods such as cream cheese, mayonnaise, and butter are not microwave-safe.
  • Microwavable takeout dinner trays are formulated for one-time use only and will say so on the package.
  • Old, scratched, or cracked containers, or those that have been microwaved many times, may leak out more plasticizers.
  • Don’t microwave plastic storage bags or plastic bags from the grocery store.
  • Before microwaving food, be sure to vent the container: leave the lid ajar, or lift the edge of the cover.