Foil or plastic wrap: Which is better?

Foil or plastic wrap: Which is better? Share this article

Whether you work as a manager of a restaurant where saving extra ingredients can mean a lot for your bottom line or you're a worker who likes to snack on leftovers after a hard day's work, finding the best food covering is important. Although sometimes reusable containers will do the trick, the choice often comes down to metal foil or plastic wrap to preserve your dish. 

Should you freeze your food in metal foil or refrigerate it in plastic? It's a tough decision to make, especially if you don't know the major differences between these two wrappings. Here's some helpful information about these two materials, their histories and their strengths. 

Aluminum foil 
Tin foil was invented in the late 1800s. Although it was initially used as part of the phonograph, this material quickly became multipurpose. People would use this metal foil to cover food and other materials, but it left a tin-like taste on much of the food it touched. Tin foil was also more rigid, expensive and fragile than its successor.

Aluminum foil rose to popularity following World War II. Aluminum foil, although sometimes called tin foil, is widely used and known for its strength, incredible thinness and inexpensiveness. It was first marketed by Reynolds, which is now a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America, or ALCOA. Aluminum is the most common metal in the earth's surface, and it hasn't been proven to be harmful in normal usage. Foil is produced by rolling sheet metal through rollers and presses. 

One drawback that people see with using aluminum foil for their food is that it can have a bigger environmental impact through its production, according to The Washington Post. But you can help reduce the environmental impact of using aluminum foil through recycled materials, which many companies already do. 

"Foil made with recycled aluminum can reduce the impacts associated with manufacturing," the newspaper explained. "Aluminum, unlike plastic or paper, can be recycled forever. According to one industry estimate, household foil already includes 25 to 40 percent pre-consumer recycled material – i.e., factory scraps and trimmings – with the rest coming from freshly mined, virgin metal. The Lantern knows of two companies, Reynolds and If You Care, that make foil with what's billed as '100 percent recycled content.'"

The other way to reduce its environmental impact is to recycle aluminum foil on your own by reusing it repeatedly. 

When it comes to cooking, foil is great to use in the oven. Aluminum foil is safe and durable enough to put right into a conventional oven or grill at any heat. If you're thinking of storing something for a night or two before planning to reheat it in an oven, foil is your choice. However, foil shouldn't be used in a microwave, as it's made of metal and will spark. 

Foil is also particularly effective against strong smelling foods like fish, Real Simple magazine explained. Wrap food tightly in foil when storing. Foil is great for using in the freezer because it keeps freezer burn and oxygen from getting to the food. Some people choose to use foil as well as plastic wrap for a more efficient freezer burn-proof covering. You can wrap the food in plastic to seal it, then cover it in foil to prevent oxygen from getting in. 

Avoid acidic foods, as the aluminum may cause them to turn blue. This isn't poisonous or harmful, but many dislike the discoloration. 

Plastic wrap 
Plastic or cling wrap is typically made of polyvinylidene chloride or low-density polyethylene. It was first invented by a Dow Chemical chemist who discovered the substance accidently. It was named Saran and used for a variety of purposes before being marketed as a food covering in the 1940s. Now this substance is widely used, and may even be in your drawer next to the aluminum foil. 

Plastic wrap is produced differently than aluminum and doesn't require the mining that aluminum does, so it has a lesser environmental impact in that sense. However, as the San Francisco Chronicle explained, plastic wrap is less reusable than aluminum foil and therefore can be more of a pollutant. If aluminum is saved and plastic wrap is thrown away, then aluminum foil is greener to use. If both are simply thrown away, then plastic wrap is best. 

Plastic wrap is better than aluminum foil at covering fresh foods. If you want to cover half an apple or avocado without it turning too brown, plastic wrap is best because it wraps tighter. Plastic wrap also works well for things like sandwiches that are made of several delicate ingredients that only need protection for a short time. Plastic wrap is also great on acidic foods. 

Don't use plastic wrap in the oven, but in some cases it may be used in the microwave to help trap moisture and speed up the heating process. Real Simple explained that plastic wrap also helps when you're preparing food. 

"When you're using a dry marinade or spice rub, you can speed up the rate of absorption by snugly wrapping the meat between two sheets of plastic wrap," the magazine suggested. 

Both plastic and aluminum wraps have their strengths and weaknesses. Plastic is best for fresh foods, items you want to microwave, acidic fruits and more delicate short-term foods. Foil works best with smelly food, items you want to freeze, or a dish you want to put in the oven. Take advantage of each, using both for separate purposes in your kitchen. 


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