Contain it...

Online scare stories warn that chemicals leach from plastic wrap into food especially in hot weather. Is this true – and, if so, what should we use instead?

by: Celeste White | 04 Apr 2007

During summer it’s wise to sharpen hygiene in the kitchen as the risk of food poisoning increases in hot weather. Leftovers and the kids’ sandwiches should be safely wrapped and stored.

Many online reports warn against storing foods in plastic. They claim that harmful chemicals from the plastic migrate into food. Allegedly diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) and bisphenolA – both used to make plastic pliable – can disrupt hormonal activity and cause cancer, reproductive problems, low sperm count and birth defects.

Nampak principal scientist Francis Hannay, who has been in the plastics industry for the past 36 years, says there is no scientific evidence that chemical migration from plastic into food is harmful to our health. ‘DEHA has been cleared by the American Food and Drug Administration and is a very well researched chemical because of its direct contact with food.

He says plastic materials and additives used for food packaging are approved according to US and European regulations. "Every new plastic material goes through a rigorous process of approval before being accepted and when queries arise they are followed up by health authorities."

Some online sites advise that consumers should remove cheese and meat from plastic wrappers and replace them with wax paper or foil. They advocate glass or ceramics for storing leftovers in the fridge and foil containers for freezing.

SA Dietetic Association president René Smalberger says, " Plastic containers and wraps are only harmful to people with a rare latex allergy. People who have latex allergies cannot have food that has been kept in plastic containers or cling-wrap, but for other people I don’t know of any problems. I have never seen research that shows chemicals that come out of plastic are harmful to children."

However, Smalberger says she prefers to use wax paper for children’s sandwiches "because it is the least artificial". She says there are no known medical risks associated with tin foil.

Executive director of the South African Plastic Federation Bill Naudé advises, "Some imported plastics are not entirely suitable for food contact. Plastic wrap for sale in this country is all locally made and is safe for contact on food and fridge storage, but is not recommended for microwave use."

More at issue is the need to maintain strict hygiene when it comes to hand washing and cleaning plastic containers such as kid’s lunch-boxes, he says. It’s also important to bear in mind that adding the heat factor to food over time creates a breeding ground for lurking bacteria, particularly in protein-rich sandwich ingredients.

Frisby says it’s best to keep sandwiches cool until lunchtime. "I send my kids to school with a cooler-box, which is also nice if you want to give them yoghurt and fruit. Tin foil is an amazing way to keep things cool. It acts like a Thermos flask because it reflects the heat and will also keep things firm," he says.

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