Is Polyethylene Safe for Food Storage


We are surrounded by plastic on an almost daily basis. And this has been a growing concern by many – especially when it comes to storing food.

plastics-food-containers-with-different-types-of-vegetable

For some reason storing food seems to be a very tricky subject as a lot of our food has either been already stored in some kind of a plastic container or it will be stored in a plastic container after we buy it.

With polyethylene being one of the predominantly used types of plastic today, this only begs the question, should we be worried about it?

Is polyethylene safe for food storage? Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is generally regarded as safe for single-use food storage only. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) are also recognized as safe materials for food storage. However, all three types of polyethylene may potentially leach harmful chemicals if exposed to UV light, heat, oily, acidic, or salty foods.

If you want to find out more and stay informed on what the current data and prevalent knowledge says about polyethylene food containers and bottles, continue reading below. Here I share everything I have found on this tricky subject.

What Are the Different Types of Polyethylene and Are They Safe for Food Storage?

Plastics are divided into 7 different categories – with the 7th category being used for plastics that do not fall in any of the previous 6 categories.

Ready-To-Eat-Food-on-the-Top-Shelf-refrigerator

There are many different types of polyethylene. For example:

  • Very-low-density polyethylene (VLDPE);
  • Linear Low-Density Polyethylene (LLDPE);
  • Chlorinated polyethylene (CPE);
  • Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX, XPE or XLPE);
  • Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMW);
  • Ultra-low-molecular-weight polyethylene (ULMWPE or PE-WAX), and more.

With that being said, there are 3 main types of polyethylene that we can stumble upon when it comes to food storage:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE);
  • High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE); and
  • Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE).

Is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Safe for Food Storage?

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) – marked with number #1 – can be found in a number of different products used for food storage applications like mineral water, beer, soft drink, jam, and juice bottles, sports drinks, peanut butter jars, yogurt bottles, vitamin bottles, food trays, oven bags, boiling cook bags, vegetable oil bottles, and more.

type of Polyethylene plastic food storage

As you can imagine, even if we don’t want to store our food in PET food containers, there is a significant chance that the food we buy from the stores has already been in contact with PET. So should this worry us?

PET is used mainly because it has some good qualities that make it a good material for storing different products and foods. It has very good – not the best though – moisture and gas repelling properties, which means that the food inside will stay protected from the outside elements.

PET also performs well when subjected to heat – hence why it is used for oven and boiling cook bags – it is also tough and transparent. It is also durable and able to withstand impacts without breaking easily.

PET is hands down one of the most commonly found types of plastic. It is considered food-grade. PET plastic is deemed to be safe, but it should be noted that – even though it does not contain BPA or Phthalates – it may leach other harmful and toxic chemicals. And the risk may be higher if the PET is subjected to higher temperatures.

PET has also been found to leach antimony (a type of toxic chemical) in high amounts.

For example, one study performed by the Scientists at Goethe University aimed to take samples from different mineral (PET) water bottles. What they found was that in 60% of the samples, there were estrogen-mimicking compounds present in the water.

Although recognized as safe for single-use PET plastic should be avoided as much as possible.

Is High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Safe Food Storage?

High-Density Polyethylene, more commonly known as HDPE, is marked with the number #2. HDPE can be found in different products, some of which do have food storing purposes like cereal and snack box liners, juice, milk, and tea jugs, chocolate syrup bottles, vinegar bottles, butter containers, and food storage buckets and boxes.

HDPE food storage

HDPE has excellent moisture repellent properties; however, it definitely does not perform well in keeping gas from permeating it. It is also a very tough and durable material that is not very flexible.

HDPE products usually have a soft waxy feel to them and are opaque.

HDPE is considered relatively safe for food storage due to its rigidity.

However, some data suggest HDPE may release harmful and toxic chemicals like the nonylphenol (NP), which is recognized as an endocrine disruptor. In another study, HDPE has also been shown to release more endocrine-disrupting compounds when subjected to UV light.

Is Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) Safe Food Storage?

Recycled Low Density Polyethylene

Low-Density Polyethylene, also known as LDPE, is marked with the number #4. Some products that have food storage applications can be made from LDPE like cling wraps, squeezable bottles (for example, ketchup, mustard, and honey bottles), foils, frozen food bags, sandwich wraps, tin can lids, six-pack rings, bread bags, and shopping bags.

Similar to HDPE, LDPE has a soft waxy surface. It has reasonably good moisture repellent properties but underperforms when it comes to heat as it melts easily. Overall, LDPE has very similar properties to HDPE, with the exception being it is less durable.

LDPE is considered chemically resistant and, overall, relatively safe for food storage.

However, LDPE has been shown to leach different chemical compounds that may act as endocrine disruptors by different studies (here and here). Very similar to HDPE, LDPE has also been found to release more endocrine disruptors when exposed to UV light.

Is There a Difference Between Polyethylene and Plastic?

Polyethylene Granules and Disposable Tableware Made of Polyethyl

Polyethylene is a type of plastic, but not all plastics are polyethylene. Plastic is usually a term used to denote synthetic polymers, which is basically another word for a material that can change its shape. Plastics are typically man-made. There are many different types of plastic, and polyethylene is an example of plastic.

Not all plastics are safe for food storage. Many, if not all, plastics can leach off harmful chemicals given the right conditions.

What Is the Difference Between Polycarbonate and Polyethylene

Polycarbonate (PC) is usually labeled as plastic resin number #7.

Polycarbonate use as greenhouse
Polycarbonate use as greenhouse

Generally speaking, polycarbonate is denser and more brittle. Polycarbonate can also break when bent, while polyethylene is a lot more bendable and softer.

When it comes to food storage, polycarbonate is not safe as it may contain the harmful chemical compound BPA.

One study aimed to investigate the effect of the different types of plastic on bottled water found that endocrine-disrupting compounds were the lowest in PET and HDPE – while BPA was found in all polycarbonate (PC) bottled waters.

Is There a Difference Between Polyethylene and Pvc?

After polyethylene, PVC is arguably the second most widely used type of plastic in the world today.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is labeled with plastic resin number #3, is not safe for food storage as it can leach off harmful chemicals. In fact, PVC may easily be considered one of the more toxic types of plastic. PVC may be used for the making of peanut butter jars, cooking oil bottles, and more.

peanut butter jars
peanut butter jars

If you remember what I said about the HDPE earlier in this article PVC has also been found to leach nonylphenol in a similar fashion to the HDPE. PVC also contains BPA and phthalates.

PVC has also been linked to numerous health problems in different studies. (here, here, and here)

Is Recycled Polyethylene Safe for Food Storage?

So far, we have explored and looked at what is known as virgin polyethylene. This is polyethylene that has been used for the first time.

Polyethylene granules and disposable tableware
Polyethylene granules and disposable tableware

But we all know that some types of plastic can be recycled. 

Recycled plastic can then be used again for the manufacturing of new plastic products, including plastic food storage containers and bottles. Recycled plastic is known as non-virgin or post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic.

This is a very tricky topic.

Generally speaking, recycled plastic which has been used for storing food, beverages, and water is not considered safe for reuse. However, a manufacturer is allowed to propose using PCR plastic for the manufacturing of new plastic food containers.

When that happens, the FDA is going to be involved in the whole process and will advise manufacturers on a case-by-case basis.

Although PCR plastics are arguably better for the environment, there is a health concern associated with them when used for food storing applications.

  • Different contaminants may find themselves in the end product;
  • Varying amounts of non-food grade plastics may be used in the making of the recycled plastic products that will be used for storing food;

In other words, there is a higher chance of contamination since plastic can absorb different chemicals during the waste management process, and they can find themselves in the end product, which then will be in touch with our food.

With all that being said, I would prefer to err on the side of caution and be very careful limiting as much as possible my use of non-virgin plastics. These plastics can be used for garbage bags, but as far as using them for storing food (especially at different temperatures), I feel like it is too early to say if this is a good idea.

Is There a Safer Alternative for Food Storage to Polyethylene?

There are definitely safer alternatives to all three types of polyethylene.

Polypropylene (PP)

First, let me introduce you to polypropylene (also known as PP and marked with number #5). PP is generally regarded as the safest type of plastic. Polypropylene has similar characteristics to polyethylene, and it is frequently used for the same purposes.

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It is a tough, very durable plastic that has a better heat tolerance and, as a result, can withstand higher temperatures without leaching off high amounts of toxic chemicals. Although just like every other type of plastic PP may also potentially leach off different chemicals.

Glass

If you are looking for one of the best and safest materials for food storage containers, look no further than glass.

Glass is one of the materials that are considered GRAS (generally regarded as safe) food applications.

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Glass outperforms polyethylene in almost every category. First, it is considered to be chemically inert – meaning it will not react to the food or liquids stored in it. You can store acidic food, fatty food, and even hot food, and it will not leach any harmful chemicals to it.

The glass will also not absorb any odors or flavors from the food and liquids stored in it, so you can be sure to have fresh and genuine tasting food at all times.

The only downsides to glass are that it is heavier, a lot easier to break, more expensive, and frequently glass containers have plastic lids or plastic gasket around the lids.

Stainless Steel

The second-best alternative to polyethylene is stainless steel metal. Stainless steel food containers are safe for food storage and are one of the most durable types of containers that we can use today.

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Generally speaking, stainless steel will not react to most foods – the only exception being acidic foods. One study reported that acidic foods cause different metals like iron, chromium, and nickel to leach out into the food or liquids.

Stainless steel is safe for use with hot and cold foods; unfortunately, it cannot be used in the microwave.

The downsides to using stainless steel are the fact that it is not transparent, and you will not be able to see what’s inside unless you open the food container. Additionally, stainless steel containers usually have plastic or silicone gaskets around their lids.

Resources I Used:

  • https://www.fda.gov/food/packaging-food-contact-substances-fcs/recycled-plastics-food-packaging
  • https://www.acplasticsinc.com/informationcenter/r/fda-approved-plastics-for-food-contact
  • https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/types-plastic-food-packaging-safety-close-look/
  • https://lifewithoutplastic.com/common-plastic-types/
  • https://theberkey.com/blogs/water-filter/what-numbers-of-plastic-for-water-bottles-are-safe-for-you-the-numbers-behind-plastic-bottles
  • http://www.babygreenthumb.com/p-122-safe-plastic-numbers-guide.aspx
  • https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cookware-plastics-shoppers-guide-to-food-safety#1
  • https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/18/are-plastic-containers-safe-to-use-food-experts
  • https://foodrevolution.org/blog/safest-food-storage-containers/
  • https://www.ecowatch.com/7-types-of-plastic-wreaking-havoc-on-our-health-1882198584.html
  • https://www.custom-pak.com/what-plastics-are-approved-for-food-contact-applications/
  • https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/is-recycled-plastic-safe-for-food-packaging-eu-seems-to-think-so/
  • https://www.ryedale.gov.uk/attachments/article/690/Different_plastic_polymer_types.pdf
  • https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic
  • https://www.reddit.com/r/manufacturing/comments/3dvfip/polyethylene_vs_polycarbonate_for_injection/
  • https://fooderyboston.com/polycarbonate-plastics-and-bpa/
  • https://sciencing.com/differences-hdpe-plastic-polyethylene-plastic-6807965.html

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