How Safe Is Your Kitchen?
Myth: Freezing Plastic Bottles Releases Dioxins
Reality: “We don’t believe there are any dioxins in food-grade plastics,” says Rolf Halden, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore. “And even if there were, freezing wouldn’t release them―heating would.” But freezing a disposable bottle is still a bad idea. Disposable bottles are prone to breaking and are hard to clean, making them more likely to harbor bacteria. So drink up, then recycle.
Bottom line: If you want bottles of frozen drinks, stick with containers that are labeled safe for reuse and freezing.
Myth: Microwaving Plastic Can Be Toxic
Reality: When certain plastic containers get hot, plasticizers (additives used to make them flexible) can dissolve in food. Some plasticizers, such as phthalates, have been linked to reproductive problems in laboratory animals, and some phthalates have been banned from children's toys by the European Parliament. But "the effect on humans isn't clear," says Anuradha Prakash, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science at Chapman University, in Orange, California, and an authority on microwaves with the Institute of Food Technologists. Phthalates are found in soft plastics, like the kind meat is wrapped in, and flexible containers, such as those used for take-out food and yogurt.
Not all plastics run the risk of contaminating hot foods, however. Containers labeled as microwave-safe have passed strict Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for resilience and can withstand repeated use. As for using cellophane wrap to reheat food faster and prevent splatters, skip it. The phthalates could migrate to your dinner. Instead, place a vented microwave-safe plastic cover or a white paper towel over the dish.
Bottom line: Toss the take-out containers and heat food in plastics that are labeled microwave-safe.
Myth: Meat and Wooden Cutting Boards Don't Mix
Reality: Both wood and plastic are safe. "The key is to clean the board properly after each use," says Carl Winter, Ph.D., a food toxicologist and the director of the FoodSafe program at the University of California at Davis. Wash the board thoroughly with soap and running water―the hotter, the better. Then dry it with a paper towel (if you leave it wet, bacteria could grow). As an added precaution, Winter recommends using two cutting boards―one for meat and one for fruits and vegetables―to prevent meat juices from contaminating produce.
Bottom line: Feel free to use a wooden board, but keep it clean.
Myth: Wash Meats, Not Vegetables
Reality: Food-safety experts recommend just the opposite. Because meat, poultry, and fish typically go through the "kill stage" of cooking, rinsing them first is unnecessary, says Shelley Feist, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education. In fact, the process of washing raw meat and fish before cooking creates a less safe environment: By the time you've rinsed the chicken, you've likely scattered its juices―and maybe salmonella―around the kitchen.
On the other hand, produce that won't be cooked should always be washed well. (The exceptions are bagged fresh-cut produce and fruit labeled "prewashed" or "triple-washed," which are fine to eat as they are.) "You can't completely rinse off E. coli," says Feist, "but many pathogens, especially salmonella, can be reduced by rinsing under running water." Note that soaking fruits and vegetables won't do the trick―the motion of running water plays a major role in removing contaminants. Use a vegetable brush on foods with a firm or rough surface, and wash rinds and skins even if you won't be eating them, since cutting or peeling can spread pathogens from the outer layer to the inside.
Bottom line: Wash your vegetables, not your meat, under running water.
Myth: Ceramic Dishes Release Traces of Lead
Reality: “Ceramics aren’t dangerous if they’ve been glazed appropriately to seal in lead,” says Winter. Since 1989 the FDA has placed strict limits on the amount of lead a ceramic product is allowed to leach through daily use. (Prolonged exposure to lead can impair brain development in children and cause many health problems in adults.) These rules are followed by large American manufacturers. But not all countries have such rigorous standards, and some small U.S. potteries may not properly formulate their glazes, resulting in an unhealthy amount of lead residue. Acidic beverages, like orange juice, can draw the metal from improperly fired pieces. To confirm that your ceramics are safe, check with the manufacturer or use a lead-testing kit (available at hardware stores).
Bottom line: Confirm that your dinnerware has been properly sealed. If you’re in doubt about your Moroccan urn, use it for decoration, not for serving drinks.
Myth: A Sparkling Kitchen Is Clean and Healthy
Reality: If you're using a sponge or a dish towel to clean, you're probably distributing more germs than you're removing, since "sponges and towels can spread bacteria," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian in St. Paul and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Paper towels are safest." To wipe up cake batter, meat juices, or other spills that could contain dangerous bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli., use a disposable towel drenched in hot, soapy water, then dry with a fresh one.
Bottom line: A sponge can make a kitchen look clean without being clean. Reserve it for dishwashing and use paper towels to clean up spills.
Myth: Teflon-Coated Pans Are Dangerous
Reality: In 1999 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began looking into the potential health risks of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical linked to cancer in laboratory animals. It was found to be widespread in the blood of the general population and in the environment. It's used to make the fluoropolymers that give nonstick pots and pans their slippery properties. Although PFOA is used to manufacture the Teflon coating, it's only present in the coating in trace amounts, which is why the EPA does not advise people to discard these pans.
Scientists with the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, say that Teflon pans left empty on a high stove setting (680° F and above) can release toxic fumes. DuPont, the maker of Teflon, claims that normal cooking temperatures aren't high enough to release toxic fumes, but as a precaution it advises that nonstick pans be used on low or medium heat and that dry or empty cookware not be left on a hot burner or in a hot oven.
If this isn't assurance enough, switch to nonstick alternatives, like seasoned cast iron or anodized aluminum. A flaking nonstick pan is not a PFOA concern, since that chemical is most prevalent as a gas. But you should toss the pan anyway. The flakes won't hurt you, but they shouldn't be consumed.
Bottom line: You can continue to use your nonstick skillet―just use it on low or medium heat and replace it with another type of pan when it's worn out.
Myth: You Can Cook With Hot or Cold Tap Water
Reality: There's a reason your mother told you to fill the pasta pot with cold water: Hot water can leach lead out of pipes, and "there's a possibility that lead is somewhere along the plumbing circuit in any home," says Michael Shannon, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. According to the EPA, houses built before 1986 are the most likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, fittings, and solder. But even plumbing legally considered lead-free may contain up to 8 percent lead. While copper pipes replaced lead ones decades ago, fusing pipes with lead was legal until 1991.
Get in the habit of using cold water for cooking, says Shannon. To have your water tested by a certified laboratory, call your local water authority or check out Testing Your Drinking Water for information on home test kits.
Bottom line: Use cold water for cooking to cut your risk of exposure to lead.
Myth: Microwave Popcorn Bags Are Toxic
Reality: A report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health linked diacetyl, a chemical used in butter flavorings in microwave popcorn, to respiratory illnesses found in factory workers who mixed them. Researchers suspected that when inhaled over extended periods, the butter-flavoring vapors become hazardous. According to the EPA, however, the flavorings pose no threat to consumers.
Bottom line: It’s probably fine to nuke popcorn, but if you need more certainty, pop your corn in a covered pot on the stove or with an air popper.
Myth: You Should Always Cool Food Before Refrigerating It
Reality: Ideally, when you refrigerate food, it should be cool enough to prevent it from fostering the growth of bacteria and from warming up the food around it to an unsafe temperature (above 40° F). But leaving food out to cool at room temperature also makes it a potential breeding ground for bacteria. Rich Vergili, a food-safety instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, recommends putting containers of hot food into cold water or ice baths to drop their temperature. Or break it up into smaller portions so it cools to a safe level quickly.
Bottom line: The faster food cools down, the safer it is. Lower the temperature of containers of hot food by placing them in cold water.
Myth: You Should Always Wash Hands With Antimicrobial Soap
Reality: Once confined to health-care settings, where they help prevent the spread of infections, antimicrobial soaps are now popular in many homes and businesses. But you don't need them. An FDA advisory committee found no evidence that antimicrobial products work any better than regular soaps. And they can even be harmful, says Halden. The antimicrobial chemicals have the potential to pollute drinking water, contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant germs, and break down to form carcinogens. Instead, use regular soap and water just before handling food and immediately after touching items that may carry harmful bacteria, such as eggs, eggshells, and raw meat, poultry, and fish.
Bottom line: Regular soap does the job safely and is preferable.
Myth: Open Cans May Contaminate the Contents
Reality: Metal cans are lined so that food can remain stable at room temperature for extended periods. The drawback associated with keeping food in an open can is that it can't be sealed tightly, which can affect a food's color and taste.
Bottom line: If you have half a can of minestrone left from lunch, pour it into a glass or plastic container that can be properly closed for storage and refrigeration.