Why packaging can spoil the flavour of food – and how to avoid it
When your bottled water tastes like plastic, it may not mean you are swallowing toxic chemicals, but it’s far from refreshing. Find out what jars, tins and bottles do to your food
Food packaging has become a new whipping boy. Its excessive use devours our planet’s resources, while toxic chemicals lurking within it might be quietly poisoning us. Both of these worries only serve to add to the unpleasantness of being able to taste it.
You’re in a hot car. You’re thirsty as hell and risk a swig from an ancient half-drunk bottle of mineral water. Ugh, it tastes how you would imagine a plastics factory to taste. The four enemies of food packaging: light, oxygen, time and heat. These are the “bad guys”, that cause volatile compounds (the quick-to-evaporate chemicals from which we determine smells and flavours) to be released. They can also cause plastics to degrade.
With chilled foods, the plastic taste is less of an issue, although wrapping foods up in plastic can lead to an unwanted sweaty quality. This is
meat aficionados consider it criminal to remove a steak from vacuum packaging and whack it straight in a hot pan (they would of course eschew vacuum packaging, and unfold the old-fashioned butchers’ paper from around their dry-aged cuts well ahead of cooking, unless they were sous-viding it first, in which case, they’d probably vac-pack it again). Wet meat does not brown well (browning being what makes meat delicious). It steams itself, instead.
The taste of metal
Metallic taste, is very complex: It doesn’t necessarily mean you swallow some metal. Metals act like catalysts and contribute to the degradation of some chemicals in foods, such as lipids. This reaction produces a metallic taste, but it’s not the metal you’re tasting. You can easily experience this if you take a few coins into a sweaty hand. You detect a metallic aroma but you don’t inhale metals, it’s just a reaction product between the coins and your skin. However, metals are still a major contributor to off flavours in food, which is why most cans are coated inside with a film of plastic.
The taste of cardboard
In food packaging circles, plain old cardboard and paper are considered a joke. They let flavours in and out without so much as a by your leave. For example, if you store food items next to soap or washing powder, off flavour volatile components may enter the food. Even cornflakes, he points out, are sealed in plastic bags inside the box these days.
The taste of glass
How often do you find yourself bemoaning that horrid glassy taste in your jam? Never. Glass is so very inert, it’s just brilliant. It is considered the safest and the best material for preserving flavour. It needs a lid, of course, which will involve metal and/or plastic. And it’s heavy and breakable. But you never taste it, which is why I favour used jars over Tupperware-type food containers at home (wild and crazy times over at our house, folks).
Avoiding packaging tastes
You know when it says on a package, “Store in a cool, dark place”? That. If you do not expose your foodstuffs to the four nasties: heat, light, oxygen and time, good tastes lie ahead. Heavily dented cans should probably be avoided, to be on the safe side, although the coating in cans is quite solid and does not crack easily, so the odd dink shouldn’t pose a problem. You could, of course, stop buying bottled and canned drinks and refill your own glass bottles instead. And purchase fresh, unpackaged foods daily as required, thus avoiding the need for protective and shelf-life extending wrappings.