Food container damage in a microwave oven

12.12.2019 17:19

Some time ago I made a decision to start bringing my own lunch to work. The idea was that for a few days per week I would cook something simple at home the evening before and store it in a plastic container over night in my fridge. I would then bring the container with me to the office next day and heat it up in a microwave at lunch time. For various reasons I wasn't 100% consistent in following this plan, but for the past 3 months or so I did quite often make use of the oven in the office kitchenette. Back in mid-September I also bought a new set of food-grade plastic containers to use just for this purpose.

Around a week ago, just when I was about to fill one of the new containers, I noticed some white stains on its walls. Some increasingly vigilant scraping and rinsing later and the stains started looking less and less like dried-on food remains and more like some kind of corrosion of the plastic material. This had me worried, since the idea that I was eating dissolved polymer with my lunch didn't sound very inviting. On the other hand, I was curious. I've never seen plastic corroding in this way. In any case, I stopped using the containers and did some quick research.

Two types of clear plastic polypropylene food containers.

After carefully inspecting all plastic containers in my kitchen, I've found a few more instances of this exact same effect. All were on one of the two types of containers I've used for carrying lunch to work. The two types are shown on the photo above. The top blue one is a 470 ml Lock & Lock (this model is apparently now called "classic"). It's dated 2008, made in China. I have a stock of these that I've used for more than 10 years for freezing or refrigerating food, but until recently never for heating things up in a microwave. The bottom green one is a 1.1 L Curver "Smart fresh". I've bought a few of these 3 months ago and only used them for carrying and heating up lunches in a microwave.

Both of these types are marked microwave safe, food safe and dishwasher safe (I've been washing the containers in a dishwasher after use). They all have the number "5" resin identification code and the PP acronym, meaning they are supposed to be made out of polypropylene polymer. The following line of logos is embossed on the bottom of the Curver containers (on a side note, the capacity spelled out in Braille seems to say "7.6 L"). Lock & Lock has a similar line of logos, except they don't advertise "BPA FREE":

Markings on the Curver Smart Fresh food container.

The damage to the Curver container is visible on the photograph below. It looks like white dots and lines on the vertical wall of the container. At a first glance it could be mistaken for dried-on food remains. On all damaged containers it most often appears in a line approximately around the horizontal level where the interface between the liquid and air would be. I tend to fill these to around the half way mark and I've used the containers both for mostly solid food like rice or pasta and liquids like sauces and soups. If I run a finger across the stains they feel rough compared to the mirror finish plastic in the other parts. No amount of washing with water or a detergent will remove them. However, the stains are much less visible when wet.

Damaged walls of the Curver plastic food container.

Here is how these stains look under a microscope. The width of area pictured here is approximately 10 mm. Microscope shows much better than the naked eye that what look like white stains on the surface are actually small pits and patches of the wall that became corrugated. The damage does appear superficial and doesn't seem to penetrate the immediate surface layer of the plastic.

Damage to the polypropylene surface under a microscope, 1.

Damage to the polypropylene surface under a microscope, 2.

I've only used the containers in this office microwave. It's a De'Longhi Perfecto MW 311 rated at 800 W (MAFF heating category "D"). I've always used the rotating plate, usually the highest power level and 2 to 3 minutes of heating time per container.

Power rating sign on the De'Longhi MW 311 microwave oven.

After some searching around the web, I found a MetaFilter post from 2010 that seems to describe exactly the same phenomenon. Rough patches of plastic that seem like corrosion appearing on Lock & Lock polypropylene containers. The only difference seems to be that in Hakaisha's case the damage seems to be on the bottom of the container. The comments in that thread that seem plausible to me suggest physical damage from steam bubbles, chemical corrosion from tomato sauce or other acids in food or some non-specific effect of microwaves on the plastic.

My experience suggests that heating and/or use in a microwave oven was required for this effect. If only food contact would be to blame, I'm sure I would have seen this on my old set of Lock & Lock containers sooner. Polypropylene is quite a chemically inert material (hence why it's generally considered food safe), however its resistance to various chemicals does decrease with higher temperatures. For example, the chemical resistance table entry for oleic acid goes from no significant attack at 20°C to light attack at 60°C.

The comment about tomatoes is interesting. I've definitely seen that oily foods with a strong red color from tomatoes or red peppers will stain the polypropylene, even when stored in the refrigerator. In fact, leaflets that come with these food containers often warn that this is possible. In my experience, the red, transparent stain remains on the container for several cycles in the dishwasher, but does fade after some time. My Lock & Lock containers have been stained like that many times, but didn't develop the damaged surface before I started microwaving food in them.

Physical damage from steam bubbles seems unlikely to me. I guess something similar to cavitation might occur as a liquid-filled container moves through nodes and antinodes of the microwave oven's EM field, causing the water to boil and cool. However, it doesn't explain why this seems to mostly occur at the surface of the liquid. Direct damage from microwave radiation also doesn't make sense. It would occur all over the volume of the plastic, not only on the inner surface and in those specific spots. In any case, dielectric heating of the polypropylene itself should be negligible (it is, after all, used for low-loss capacitors exactly because of that property).

Another interesting source on this topic I found was a paper on deformation of packaging materials by Yoon et al. published in Korean Journal of Food Science and Technology in 2015. It discusses composite food pouches rather than monolithic polypropylene containers, however the inner layer of those pouches was in fact a polypropylene film. The authors investigated the causes of damage to that film after food in the pouches has been heated by microwaves. They show some microphotographs that look similar to what I've seen under my microscope.

Unfortunately, the paper is in Korean except for the abstract and figure captions. Google translate isn't very helpful. My understanding is that they conclude that hot spots can occur in salty, high-viscosity mixtures that contain little water. My guess is the mixture must be salty to reduce the penetration depth due to increased conductivity and high-viscosity to lessen the effect of evaporative cooling.

Most telling was the following graph that shows temperature measurements in various spots in a food pouch during microwave heating. Note how the highest temperatures are reached near the filling level (which I think means on the interface between the food in the pouch and air). Below the filling level, the temperature never raises above the boiling point of water. Wikipedia has values between 130°C and 166°C for the melting point of polypropylene. Given the graph below it seems plausible that a partially-dried out food mixture stuck to the container above the liquid level might heat up enough to melt a spot on the container.

Figure 3 from Analysis of the Causes of Deformation by Yoon et al.

Image by Yoon et al.

In summary, I think spot melting of the plastic described in the Yoon paper seems the most plausible explanation for what I was seeing. Then again, I'm judging this based on my high-school knowledge of chemistry, so there are probably aspects of this question I didn't consider. It's also hard to find anything health- or food-related on the web that appears trustworthy. It would be interesting to try out some experiments to test some of these theories. Whatever the true cause of the damage might be, I thought it was prudent to buy some borosilicate glass containers to replace the polypropylene ones for the time being.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life

Comments

I also think spot heating is responsible for the spots. I see them too on my containers, mostly on the bottom.

In addition to variability from the food (water content, thermal conduction, etc) there is also considerable variability in the EM field. You can visualize this by laying damp thermal paper (eg old receipts) across the microwave. The paper will darken in the areas with highest field strength. Even in microwaves with rotating platforms some spots seem to receive much more energy.

Here's a related question I've always wanted to test: is it faster to heat two containers of food sequentially or attacked on top of one another? It should be easy to test if I could find an accurate thermometer.

Posted by Spencer

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