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What sort of cutting boards are the safest in terms of food safety? I have a friend who claims that wood cutting boards are “gross.” I don’t know what she means by that, exactly. Cutting Board food safety maybe? I think the idea is that wood soaks up harm-causing pathogenic nastiness from the stuff that you prepare on it.
This isn’t totally crazy. Wood is porous. It has cracks and knots and little spaces throughout. It makes sense that foodborne-illness causing bacteria might take up in a cutting board, given the opportunity.
So, let’s dig in: are wooden cutting boards unsafe? Are plastic cutting boards safer? And what can you do to ensure the safety of your food from the perspective of cutting board selection and maintenance.
I had a look at some of the things that have been written about cutting boards and food safety. The consensus seems to be that wooden cutting boards are the safest choice. That doesn’t mean that they’re entirely without drawbacks, however. And not all wooden cutting boards are created equal.
There are certain problems that you can run into with wooden cutting boards. The longevity of your cutting board will depend on the kind of material that it’s made from. Boards made from hardwood like maple or bamboo will hold up well over time. They’re fine-grained and hold together well, which means that pathogenic bacteria have a hard time finding the little spaces that they need to establish a foothold.
Softwoods like cedar aren’t quite as durable. They’re easier on your knives, given their softness, but they’re also more prone to wear. Softer woods tend to have larger grains. The wood separates out around those grains more easily, which creates space in which the bacteria can establish itself.
Because wood is porous, separation around the grain isn’t the only place the bacteria might take up residence. Pathogens could take up in tiny pores as well. This problem becomes more acute if you’re using a cutting board to prepare meat. Meat is tricky from a food-safety perspective: livestock can be reservoirs of the sort of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Meat juice is also rich in the nutrients that bacteria like. You don’t want that juice soaking into your board, so be diligent about hygiene and be careful not to prepare vegetables on a cutting board that’s previously been used for meat.
There are a few things that you can do to preserve the integrity of your wooden cutting board and extend its natural life. Food-grade mineral oil is recommended. With a light sanding and a fresh coat of oil, you can extend the lifetime of a good quality wooden cutting board for years without compromising on the food safety front.
This is the major advantage that wooden cutting boards have over plastic: they can be maintained, over time, without compromising the cutting board itself. Despite the fact that wooden cutting boards are porous, despite the fact that they’re grained, the fact that you can sand them down and put a coat of protective oil on them means that you can take a surface that’s pitted and scored and restore it to smoothness.
Plastic cutting boards aren’t porous. That means that they won’t soak up juices or pathogens from whatever you’re working with. They can be put in the dishwasher, which makes them a bit easier to clean than wooden cutting boards, which can’t take the heat and must instead be washed by hand.
The principal problem with plastic cutting boards is that of scoring. Plastic is a bit more malleable than wood is. That means using a knife on a plastic cutting board leaves scratches along the surface.
To us, these scratches won’t look like much. They could be tiny, nearly imperceptible. To a bacterium, however, they’re considerably larger. From a microbe’s perspective, a scratch is not a scratch; it’s a crevasse, a ravine, a canyon.
It’s also a good place to settle in. Such scratches are relatively sheltered from the elements. That protects bacteria that might live in them from heat, light, other pathogens, or chemical disinfectants. They’re prime real estate, and they give bacteria a space where they can settle in, kick up their feet, and start a family.
Unlike wooden cutting boards, plastic boards are easily maintained. You can’t easily sand them down or apply mineral oil in order to try and counteract the scoring effects of your kitchen knives. A plastic cutting board that’s taken some damage isn’t easily restored to a pristine state.
If your plastic cutting board is accumulating a collection of battle scars, you should probably throw it away. This isn’t the end of the world. Although plastic isn’t a renewable resource, plastic cutting boards are pretty common. You can always buy a new one at the store. That’s not an environmentally sustainable solution, per say, but it will help keep you safe from the threat of bacteria growing in the grooves on the plastic.
No wooden cutting board is safe if it isn’t kept clean. Scored or smooth, wooden or plastic: any cutting board that isn’t washed with hot water and soap on a regular basis can harbor foodborne bacteria. Ultimately, this is more important than the sort of cutting board that you have, or the steps that you’re taking to otherwise maintain it. Wash your cutting boards, wash your knives, and wash your hands. Stay vigilant and stay safe!
By: Sean McNulty