The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created to set standards for the safe production and storage of food, beverages, and drugs. On top of creating stringent guidelines for consumable items, they also look closely at things like preparation equipment and packaging materials — including plastic. Given how many of our snacks, soft drinks, and medicines are packaged in plastic, you might think the list of FDA approved plastics for food contact is quite long. In reality, there are only a few major varieties of plastic used for our favorite foods.
“FDA compliant” means that a material meets all of the FDA’s guidelines for safe, direct contact with food. It’s essentially an official way of saying material is “food grade.” To be FDA compliant, a material must be able to withstand the environment it will be used in. For example, if a plastic conveyor belt transports food through an extremely hot oven for cooking, it must not undergo any physical changes when exposed to those temperatures. It will also need to hold up through rigorous cleaning and sanitizing cycles, if applicable. Finally, it has to be compatible with the type of food it will be in contact with and not leach any chemicals if a food is acidic, like tomato sauce, or has high moisture content and so on.
Several plastics have made it onto the FDA approved materials list for food contact, and are used in food, beverage, and medicine packaging you most likely already have in your home. While it’s always important to follow specific guidelines related to food storage, temperature, and recycling, the following plastics are generally very safe for food contact.
HDPE is the most common household plastic around, used to make beverage bottles, butter containers, cereal box liners, and thicker food storage buckets. Recycled HDPE is reviewed by the FDA on a case-by-case basis, as it can sometimes become unsafe in the recycling process.
LDPE is similar to HDPE, but tends to be less rigid, making it perfect for squeeze bottles or plastic films like cling wrap, six-pack rings and more. It is chemically resistant, repels microorganisms and doesn’t leach harmful toxins when used to store food at a variety of temperatures. However, it is not deemed safe for food contact in a recycled state.
While there are concerns about bisphenol A (BPA) present in polycarbonate resin, the FDA has conducted numerous studies and concluded that the intake of BPA from plastic is very low and has no apparent negative effects on physical health. There are also specific FDA approved polycarbonate sheets available for all sorts of food applications, from hospital trays to water bottles.
Any plastic jars and beverage containers in your home are most likely made from PET. This material is used in 2-liter soda bottles, peanut butter jars, salad dressing containers, and more. While many plastics are only FDA compliant and food safe in their virgin (or unrecycled) state, recycled PET is an FDA approved plastic for food contact. It also repels microorganisms and doesn’t corrode, making it an overall ideal material for food and beverage contact and storage.
Polypropylene is most often used for single-serve containers like yogurt cups but also shows up in reusable containers that can store leftovers. On top of being one of the FDA approved food contact materials, it’s microwave safe and nonvolatile, meaning it will not react with any type of food you store in it, whether it’s acidic, basic, or liquid.
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