Microwaving styrofoam with food in it

Is It Safe to Microwave Food in Styrofoam Containers?

Everyone’s heard of instant-cup noodles. We’ve all tried it once or twice, or even 100 times, but has anyone bothered to read the warning label on the package?

I’m a long-time veteran of eating cup noodles and I can honestly say that I haven’t. The thought has never crossed my mind.

In this article, I want to go over the question of whether or not it’s safe to microwave instant noodles packaged in a Styrofoam cup that they come in.

Should you microwave food in styrofoam containers?

It’s not safe to microwave Styrofoam. Styrofoam is fundamentally comprised of a compound known as styrene. In multiple studies across the world, which included animals and humans, there was a common conclusion about how this compound is directly linked to cancer.

Additional studies have found that heating up containers made of polystyrene can leak into foods as well. It’s important that, when you come across styrofoam food containers, you know how to properly cook the food and avoid health risks.

This is where this article comes in as a guide. I also want to explain the reasons why several safety concerns are associated with microwaving instant noodles from the styrofoam container that they come in.

What is styrofoam?

Styrofoam is a material that’s used in the production of plastic and polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene is made from styrene, a plastic polymer. The term “polystyrene” is used to refer to multiple types of polymers that are created through this chemical process; some are used as components in plastic, while others are produced as foams or other products.

These containers have gain popularity due to them being widely available and easy to produce. They are also considered good for insulation and thus helps keep food and drinks warm for longer periods.

These polystyrene containers have become so widely used and so popular that it was a shock to the nation when studies discovered their health risks. More and more states are banning together to prohibit the use of styrofoam material for food.

Aside from the major risk factors with our food, it’s also well known that this material doesn’t decompose so easily and can leave areas desolate with the trash that can last hundreds of years. It’s been studied that it will take 500 years for styrofoam to decompose so it is officially considered a non-biodegradable pollutant.

Why is styrofoam bad?

The major concern came about when studies and years’ worth of research finally came up with the conclusion that styrofoam was linked to cancer.

Styrofoam was widely used as containers for food and many households unknowingly believed there is no harm in microwaving styrofoam containers with food.

When the conclusion of these studies was available, the question about whether it was even safe to microwave styrofoam came up. As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got involved, they decided to regulate the about of the compound that was allowed in the materials that were used in conjunction with food. Manufacturers had to comply with these protocols if they were to continue producing foods contained in this material.

What happens when you microwave a styrofoam cup of noodles?

Microwaving styrofoam with food in it v3
  • Unequal Heating of Noodles and Broth: Microwaves are notorious for not heating food or liquid evenly. For example, the broth contained within a styrofoam cup of noodles may achieve a higher temperature than the noodles themselves. This could lead to the noodles not being properly cooked while the broth is scalding hot, creating potential for uneven cooking and a risk of burning your mouth.
  • Potential for Accidental Ingestion of Styrofoam Particles: When styrofoam is exposed to high heat, it softens and can break down into small particles. If these particles are not noticed and removed, they can end up in your noodles. Consuming styrofoam, even in small amounts, can cause digestive problems as it isn’t a material designed for ingestion. For instance, imagine biting into a piece of styrene-infused noodle—not a pleasant experience!
  • Risk of physical harm due to container deformation: If a styrofoam cup softens or deforms due to high heat, it might actually collapse, causing the hot contents to spill. This can potentially lead to burns or further kitchen accidents. In a worst-case scenario, if you were to reach into your microwave to retrieve your noodles and the container deformed, spilled contents could lead to serious burns.
  • Inefficiency: Styrofoam is an insulative material—it’s designed to reduce heat transfer. When microwaved, the energy may not easily pass through the container to heat the food inside, increasing cooking time. Consequently, you might find your noodles are not as hot as you’d expect after the usual cooking duration.
  • The “Safer Microwave” Myth: Some people believe that as long as they don’t microwave the styrofoam cup for too long or at too high a power setting, they’ll avoid the potential hazards. However, this is a misconception. While lower temperatures might reduce the risk of the cup deforming or the chemicals leaching quickly, detriment to health remains a possibility if the styrofoam starts releasing harmful chemicals even at lower temperatures.
  • Preference for Taste and Quality: The above points aside, microwaving noodles in their styrofoam cup might also affect the taste and texture of your meal. The uneven heating might leave some noodles hard and others overly soft. Plus, any chemicals that leach into the food might noticeably affect the taste of the food.

Styrofoam component styrene is linked to cancer

The connection between the styrofoam component styrene and cancer has been the subject of serious scientific scrutiny, leading to its classification as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018. Further affirmations from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services corroborate that there is a significant relationship between styrene exposure and an increased risk of developing cancer. This consensus among health organizations stems from studies that have shown how styrene can metabolize into styrene oxide in the human body, a substance that can cause cellular damage leading to cancer.

Occupational exposure to styrene—particularly in industries such as the manufacturing of rubber, plastic, insulation, or fiberglass—is considered the most significant risk for the development of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, as indicated by epidemiological studies within these industries. Environmentally, styrene can also be released into the air, compounding the exposure risk not just through ingestion but also inhalation.

It’s worth noting that the risk levels for cancer from styrene exposure vary depending on the mode and frequency of exposure, with higher and more frequent exposures posing greater risks. Thus, recommendations to minimize contact with styrene reflect a caution towards potential carcinogenicity, compelling manufacturers and consumers alike to consider safer materials and protective measures in environments where styrene is present.

It is also linked to hormone complications

In addition to its potential carcinogenic effects, styrene and other plastic components have been linked to hormonal disruptions, particularly those related to estrogen levels in the body. Estrogen, a naturally occurring hormone in both males and females, plays vital roles in a range of bodily functions. In females, it supports the development and maintenance of the reproductive system.

In both genders, it contributes to mental health, bone health, and cardiovascular health. Styrene and similar plastic components are considered “endocrine disruptors” due to their potential to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones. This interference arises because these chemicals can mimic or block the effects of hormones such as estrogen, leading to imbalances and disrupted bodily functions.

For instance, excessive estrogenic activity can lead to a host of health issues, including fertility problems, menstrual issues, accelerated aging, and certain types of cancer. Furthermore, styrene’s estrogen-like activity can disrupt the normal functioning of other hormone-related systems as well, leading to potential impacts on metabolic processes, immune function, neurological systems, and more. Even in cases where the exposure to these chemicals is relatively low, the disruption caused can be significant over time, especially if exposure is continuous or frequent.

Therefore, the potential for styrene and similar chemicals to impair hormone functionality underscores the broader health implications of exposure to such plastic components and serves as another strong reminder of the importance of careful usage and disposal of products that contain these chemicals.

How much leaching can come from styrene?

A study about styrofoam cups wanted to test and see how much of the styrofoam components were emitted when exposed to heat. This study mainly focused on answering the issues concerning people who drink hot tea or coffee from a Styrofoam cup. The study showed that after reaching 70°C, the concentration of styrene was detected. And as the temperature rose, more and more styrene leached into the hot beverage.

Temperature (°C)Styrene concentration leached (ug/L)
Temperatures in celsius at which Styrene releases measured in ug/L concentration

Make sure to use microwave-safe containers

Using microwave-safe containers for heating or cooking food in a microwave is not just a suggestion; it’s a necessity for both safety and health. These containers are specifically designed to withstand microwave temperatures without melting, warping, or releasing potentially harmful chemicals into the food. Such containers are widely available at local grocery stores, home goods stores, and online, and they are explicitly labeled as “microwave-safe” to guide consumers in making safe choices.

If a container lacks this label, it’s prudent to assume it isn’t safe for microwave use. Microwave-safe containers come in various materials, including glass, ceramic, and certain plastics, designed to endure the heat generated by microwaves without degrading. The importance of using these designated containers cannot be overstated; non-safe materials can not only leach chemicals into food when heated but may also cause fires or explosions if they contain metal or other reactive elements.

Furthermore, using inappropriate containers can lead to uneven cooking or heating, affecting the quality and safety of the food. A key example of microwave-safe innovation is “microwave-specific plastic ware” that remains cool to the touch even when the food inside is hot, enhancing safety and convenience. The pursuit of microwave-safe containers reflects a broader commitment to food safety and health, ensuring that convenience does not come at the cost of well-being.

Transfer food from styrofoam to a microwavable plate

When dealing with takeout food containers, one must exercise caution and avoid microwaving styrofoam, as it can leach toxic chemicals into food when heated. Always transfer the content onto a microwave-safe plate or bowl—ceramic or glass being the best options due to their durability and non-reactivity. These materials are designed to handle the high heat produced by microwaves without releasing harmful substances, ensuring that your food can be heated without any health risks.

It is also a good practice to preemptively inquire with the restaurant about alternative packaging, such as paper plates, which are microwavable and a safer option for both your health and the environment. If alternative packaging is unavailable, prompt transfer of the food to a safer material upon arrival is advisable.

This immediate transition not only minimizes the potential for chemical contamination but also ensures that the food can be reheated in a manner that maintains its flavor and texture while being safe to consume. By proactively choosing microwave-safe containers, you safeguard your health and add an extra layer of assurance that your meal will be enjoyable and free of unwanted contaminants.

The bottom line

Styrofoam containers are made from polystyrene, a common material that is used to make plastic. It is a light, rigid and clear plastic that is also inexpensive. If you heat the polystyrene in styrofoam with food, you risk leaching toxic chemicals into it. This chemical leaching can cause cancer and complications with the reproductive system in females.

Never microwave food in styrofoam. I need to, transfer the food to a ceramic or glass bowl or plate and then microwave it. When microwaving items, always use a glass bowl or plate if possible. Always transfer the food from the container when possible.

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