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Wood or Plastic? Myths about Healthy Chopping Boards

Buzzle Staff Oct 27, 2018
For decades plastic cutting boards have been touted as being safer to use because plastic is non-porous. But the truth is, you're safer with that old wooden board your grandmother used.
If you've been to a kitchen store in the last couple of years, you may have noticed that they are starting to carry many types of wooden cutting boards.
Not long ago, it was hard to find a wooden cutting board among the stacks and displays of plastic cutting boards, their packaging proclaiming how much safer plastic is because it won't trap and hold germs to get on food every time you use the board.
Plastic boards were heavily advertised on TV for years, convincing everyone that plastic was better because it is non-porous. Cooks everywhere were told that wooden boards are so porous that harmful organisms such as salmonella, e-coli, and listeria would soak into the pores where they would lurk, waiting to contaminate other foods later.
The advertising seemed to make so much sense that everyone believed it was true. Many people threw out the trusty wooden boards they had been using for years, and the manufacturers quickly transferred their efforts to producing a wide variety of plastic replacements.
Health officials even supported the idea that plastic was better-until 1993. Microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute became the first to actually test the theory to see if it had any validity. The results of their tests stunned the entire chopping block community.
Researchers at the Institute intentionally contaminated both wooden cutting boards and plastic ones with all types of bacteria that cause food poisoning. They then tested the boards regularly, without washing or touching them, to see what happened to the bacteria.
Surprisingly, all the bacteria on the wooden board dried off within three minutes. On the plastic board, the bacteria not only remained alive but actually multiplied overnight.
The explanation for the dramatic results is that wood has a natural bacteria-killing property, which plastic does not. Because of the capillary action of dry wood, germs quickly disappear beneath the surface of the board, where they die quickly.
The exposed area on top of the board is free from microbes. In contrast, bacteria just sit on the hard surface of a plastic cutting board, ready to attack whatever food is placed on the board next.
Researchers also discovered that scrubbing with hot water and soap will remove microbes from the surface of wooden and plastic cutting boards, new or used, but plastic boards that have been scarred by knife blades are resistant to decontamination by hand washing. But as long as an antibacterial soap or cleaner is used for plastic boards, it is probably safe.
Despite these findings, you can't assume that wooden cutting boards are self-decontaminating, or that plastic ones should not be used at all. No matter what type of cutting board you use, you should always take the same precautions

Scrub cutting boards thoroughly with hot water and soap, or run through a dishwasher.
Keep all cutting boards dry when not in use. Bacteria can survive only a few hours without moisture.

A mild bleach solution can decontaminate plastic and other surfaces, but even at full strength bleach does not sanitize wooden cutting boards because of the organic composition of wood.
To disinfect cutting boards, both plastic and wood, spray them first with a mist of vinegar, followed by a mist of hydrogen peroxide. This combination kills bacteria on meat and produce as well, without hurting or contaminating the food.
You can kill germs on or below the surface of a wooden cutting board by cooking it at high heat in an 800-Watt microwave oven for about 10 minutes. Microwaving will not disinfect plastic boards, however, since their surfaces will not get hot enough to kill the germs.
Despite boastful claims of antibacterial cutting boards, they are not self-sanitizing. Last year the EPA ordered two companies to stop selling cutting boards that claimed to prevent the growth of organisms including salmonella and E. coli. The cutting boards had been treated with pesticides that prevent odor-causing bacteria from attacking plastic products.
It seems that your best bet when it comes to keeping your family safe from disease-causing germs is to just stick with your tried and true wooden cutting board, keep it clean, and ignore the hype of advertising that claims plastic is better. Your grandmother had it right all along.
But the pesticide has not been proven effective against organisms that can cause disease, so the EPA said that the manufacturers of those boards were misleading the public. In fact, the EPA is currently cracking down on the claims of so-called self-disinfecting brushes, toys, and sponges, for that very reason.