Safer food storage for better health

by Samia McCully, ND

This article was originally published in August 2006

Contents inside a refrigerator

(August 2006) — Once seen as a godsend for healthy food storage, refrigerators and plastic containers are now used without a second thought. From the dark ages to a world of ease, these devices, if used improperly, quickly become our bane.

Container choices
Once touted as the miracle in food storage, plastic and cling wrap are now known to be anything but a miracle. Cling wrap is a #3 plastic containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl, a known animal and possible human carcinogen. PVC also is found in some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars.

Other plastics to watch out for are #6 and #7. Number 6 plastics, such as Styrofoam food trays and egg cartons, generally contain polystyrene and pose several potential health threats. Several studies show that long-term exposure to styrene results in nervous system dysfunction as well as symptoms such as headache, fatigue and depression.

A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 revealed that 100 percent of human tissue samples taken contained styrene. EPA classified it as a possible human carcinogen.

Many #7 plastics contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that mimics estrogen. Number 7s to watch out for include plastic baby bottles, five-gallon water bottles, Nalgene and other “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery; #7 plastics labeled bio-degradable are the exception.

A study published by Molecular Cancer Therapeutics in 2002 showed that BPA could stimulate the growth of human prostate cancer cells. A study conducted at Tufts University in 2005 suggested that BPA may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Safer plastic choices are #1, #2, #4 and #5. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), however, recommends avoiding the use of microwaves and heating for any plastic, and avoiding #3, #6 and #7 plastics for food altogether. Even “microwave safe” plastic can leach into food.

Avoid re-using #1 and #2 plastics. Never use these for warm or hot liquids. Leaching also is increased by scratches, oily substances and heat, including dishwashers.

When preparing and storing food, use glass, enamel or stainless steel containers. All are non-porous, unlike plastic.

The pantry
Whether in the refrigerator or pantry, moldy food should be thrown out. Mold can throw healthy gut bacteria off-balance and disturb digestion. Removing spoiled parts from soft cheeses, bread and fruit only eliminate visible portions of mold — the mold goes deeper.

PCC nutrition educators advise throwing out a whole peach, for instance, even if only a part is moldy.

Keep spices, onions, potatoes and a week’s supply of oil in a cool, dark place to prevent spoilage. Keep your oil back stock refrigerated.

The refrigerator
Moisture is a breeding ground for mold and mildew. Produce should be washed only before use to avoid increasing refrigerator humidity. Store produce in the crisper to prevent wilting. Wrap it in unbleached paper towels or a clean cloth to absorb extra water.

Don’t pack your refrigerator to the brim. Leave some breathing room. Air needs to circulate. Temperatures should be kept between 33 and 40 degrees.

If you like to keep pre-cut fruit and vegetables or leftovers for easy snacks, store them in a glass, enamel, ceramic or stainless steel container. Use a plate to cover, not plastic wrap.

Eggs keep for 3 to 5 weeks but should be stored in their container on a low shelf, not the door. This keeps them colder, increasing shelf-life.

Attention to “use by” dates is a must. Go through your refrigerator each week and throw out what’s not fresh; old food has reduced nutrient value. Meat and fish should be frozen unless you plan to eat it within two days of purchase.

The freezer
Thawing is most safely done in the refrigerator in a sealed package in a bowl of cold water. I don’t recommend microwaving anything, even for defrosting.

Freezer storage does increase the longevity of our food — but not forever! Anything that has been stored longer than a year should be thrown out. Most things have a freezer-life of a few months. For a complete list, you can download the brochure at

Use glass or enamel casseroles, butcher paper, parchment, foil or number 4 freezer bags for freezing. Make sure hot food has cooled before placing it in storage bags.

Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to healthier food storage and a healthier you!

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, August 2006

Packaging and plastics, Raw milk, Access to pasture and Horizon Organics, and more

Your co-op, August 2006

What are Ends policies?, Talk to the Board, Board meeting report, and more

News bites, August 2006

Water wars, Dead water linked to subsidies, Meat and fish taste inherited, and more