Choosing Wisely Among Food Storage Containers

There are a wide variety of available containers for storing leftover foods, made of several different types of materials, in many different styles and shapes, and in all price ranges. However, your intended use of the container(s) should be the determining factor in choosing which to purchase.

Containers made out of a variety of different types of plastics have become the most popular containers around, available in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and designs, many of which are very low priced. But one needs to be wary of many of these, especially those at the low end of the prices scale. Containers made from most plastics will, especially if heated, leach chemicals into the food they contain, and even into the air we breath. Manufacturers and industry groups will say that the levels of chemicals released are at such low levels as to present no danger, but a good rule to follow is that while it's generally fine to use plastic containers, even the lowest priced plastic containers, to store foods that will not be heated in the container, such as fruits, grains, and raw vegetables, foods that are intended to be reheated in the container should not be stored in plastic.
OXO Lock Top Plastic Storage Container Set

Almost all plastic food storage containers will indicate whether or not they are "microwave safe", but this safety indication relates only to whether or not the container itself will survive heating in a microwave, meaning that it will not melt and that it contains no non-microwavable materials, such as a design colored in paint or ink that contains metal. Unfortunately, the term "microwave safe" not not mean that the plastic will be non-leaching and that you and your food are safe from chemicals being released from the plastic during the heating process. Thus, use these containers to refrigerate or freeze food, or to keep food sealed, flavor-fresh and insect-free on a kitchen counter, but do not plan on using them to re-heat food in the microwave. Also, as a rule and unless specifically stated on the packaging or on the container itself, plastic food storage containers are not oven safe.

One final word about plastic containers: BPA (bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical that has been used in the manufacturing process of certain plastics and resins for over one-half a century. However, EPA studies have found that many serious health problems can be connected to BPA exposure, and while the EPA has said that the low levels of BPA present in plastics used for food storage does not present a verifiable risk to consumers, studies are continuing, and manufacturers of food storage containers are now marketing many of their products as "BPA-Free". As a guide, it would be best to never microwave plastic products that do contain BPA.
New Wave Enviro Stainless Food Container

Though generally a bit more expensive, food storage containers made of glass, ceramic or stoneware are not just safer, do not leach any questionable chemicals when in contact with food, but generally much more economical, as they have much longer useful lives than plastic containers. In fact, while studies have shown that plastic containers (depending on their quality and amount of use, especially how frequently they are used in the microwave and how hot they are allowed to get), will last from one to four years. Glass containers, so long as they are not dropped - or scoured with an abrasive that will score the glass - will last a least ten years, and generally much longer. So, a $20 price for a set of glass storage containers that will likely last ten or 15 years, or more, is a much better investment than spending $10 for plastic containers that may be just a memory less than four years from now. It is also good to know that glass recycling is considerably more environmentally friendly than recycling plastic.
Kinetic Glassworks Storage Containers Rectangular

Metal food storage containers also feature the likelihood of lasting for a decade or more, and can generally be relied on to produce no leaching chemical toxins. Metal food containers are generally marketed as canisters and as containers for storing the day's lunch, but any of these can be used for food storage, and they are freezer safe, though not for the microwave, and unless specifically stated, not oven safe. Metal food storage containers are most often found made from stainless steel or more affordable aluminum. Both stainless steel and aluminum are readily recyclable.

There are both plastic and metal food storage containers marketed as having vacuum seals that will keep food fresher for three, four, five times as long as conventional containers. While most of the plastic vacuum seal types include a pump to actually remove air from the container once it is closed, metal containers generally do not include this, and rely on a button device or snap to seal the container, though without a method of removing air from the container.

There are a lot of choices available in choosing food storage containers, but the best way to proceed is to know how your containers will be used, and pick those that are the safest and longest lasting for your needs. Then, shape, design, color and of course cost, can all be considered.

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Revised and updated July, 2015
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