RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Everyone knows that plastic cutting boards are safer to use than wood, right? On the other hand, recommendations that people should use plastic boards rather than wooden ones have no scientific evidence to back up those claims. So we turned to a leading researcher on the topic to see what his experiments have to say.
THIS: Wooden cutting board
Chef and knife manufacturers claim that wood is easier on knife blades than plastic or marble. But you have to wonder what’s seeping down into the grooves made in the wood by all that cutting and chopping.
THAT: Plastic cutting board
The main benefit to plastic is that it’s a nonporous surface that can be doused with boiling water for disinfection without any harm to the actual board.
This or that?
Dean O. Cliver, PhD, professor emeritus of food safety at the University of California, Davis, has been studying the issue since the late 90s. Recently he and a group of students cultivated Salmonella bacteria on new and used plastic and wood cutting boards and then cleaned them manually (with hot soapy water and a dish rag). Cliver and colleagues found that wooden cutting boards seemed to pull the bacteria down beneath the surface of the cutting board, where they didn’t multiply and eventually died off. Even older wooden cutting boards with deep grooves had low levels of recoverable bacteria, similar to what was found in new boards. “It’s been suggested that bacteria being slurped down in wood could reappear if you scored the wood with a knife,” says Cliver. But his research has found that the bacteria never reappear on the surface, even after it’s been sliced with a sharp blade.
And while new plastic cutting boards can be cleaned and disinfected to the point where few bacteria remain, the same can’t be said for old knife-scarred boards, Cliver found. “With the plastic, after manual washing as I would do under my kitchen faucet, we could still recover bacteria from grooves,” he says. Dishwashers didn’t eliminate the problem either: the bacteria didn’t actually die, they were re-deposited on other surfaces in the dishwasher. And, he adds, tests on old plastic boards treated with disinfectants such as chlorine bleach still found levels of residual bacteria hiding in grooves. Similar research performed by the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management has found that unless plastic cutting boards are soaked nightly in bleach, they are very prone to absorbing hard-to-remove food residues that could promote the growth of bacteria and black mold.