Is BYOC shopping safe?

For many of us, buying organic snacks and toting recyclable grocery bags is the extent of our eco-conscious consumer habits. But for the extremely earth friendly, there’s a eco-shopping trend gathering steam called BYOC (bring your own container), where shoppers bring glass jars and containers with them to market to fill with products like coffee, grains, olive oil and even natural household cleaners. Most items are available in bulk, without all that pesky packaging.

From an environmentalist standpoint BYOC makes sense. Less packaging means less cereal boxes in our overcrowded land fills, fewer plastic bottles lingering on for the next few millennia and tree-lined streets free of plastic bags entwined in their branches.

How strong is the risk of contamination in non-packaged food?

It could also lead to more healthful eating. Eco-friendly stores tend to lean toward natural products, so if you’re shopping BYOC style, you’re far more likely to have choose between two types of whole grain cereal than between Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms.

From a parental point of view, one of the real advantages to BYOC shopping could be the lack advertising aimed at your kids. Take a stroll down an aisle at your local grocery story and you’re likely to see hundreds of cartoon characters hocking unhealthy food directly to your children. You can try to explain to a six-year-old that just because Dora the Explorer is featured on a box doesn’t mean it has to go into the cart, but don’t expect the conversation to go smoothly.

“With its over reliance on cartoon characters in ads and packaging, the food industry clearly targets children in a way that is developmentally relevant to them and therefore attracts their attention,” says Emily Israel, PhD, associate director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Optimal Weight for Life clinic. “Children are inherently drawn to the ‘fun’ packaging and therefore are likely to desire the unhealthy food inside.”

So while BYOC shopping has its advantages, it’s not without fault. First off, I’d be willing to bet most BYOC stores are located in wealthier areas of cities and towns, and require a lot of home space for storing all those bins, jars and containers. For years it’s been reported that families in low-income urban communities have found it more difficult than their suburban counterparts to maintain a well-balanced, nutritious diet because of reduced access to stores that carry healthier options like fresh fruit, vegetables and grains. It’s quite possible that for the time being, the BYOC trend falls into this category.

Also, depending on the cleanliness of the BYOC store and your fellow shoppers, there’s the potential danger of contamination that goes with unprotected foods. E. coli, salmonella, shigella and other foodborne infections pose a slightly increased risk when foods are kept out in the open. Clearly these are concerns in packaged grocery stores as well, but the added lack of barriers in BYOC shopping could prove to be a bigger issue for some shoppers.

Courtney Gidengil, MD, MPH

“Whenever people are reaching in and out of public containers, be it with their hands or a scoop, there is the potential of exposing the food to bacteria,” says Courtney Gidengil, MD, MPH, from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Boston. “The more people that go in and out of a container just increases the chances of contamination.”

Parents whose children have dietary concerns, like Celiac disease or food allergies, should be especially careful if they choose to shop BYOC, because their children could be unknowingly exposed to a trigger food. “It really depends on how the store is laid out, but if people are using their own scoops to touch food, BYOC shopping could be a bad idea for parents of kids with food allergies,” Gidengil says. “If people are touching nuts then using the same utensils to touch other items there is an obvious increased risk of cross contamination. For kids who have severe reactions to allergens, this could be a real concern.”

As a general rule, Gidengil says BYOC shoppers should probably avoid foods that spoil easy or are more prone to foodborne illness, like dairy or meat. But when it comes to dry goods, as long as the consumer and BYOC store staff are extra cautious about cleanliness, then there shouldn’t be any more health concerns from this style of shopping compared to conventional grocery marts.

“If you’re interested in taking a more BYOC approach to shopping, parents need to make sure their containers are super clean, and kept air tight when food is stored inside,” she says. “Just make sure that the BYOC stores you frequent are as vigilant about cleanliness as you are.”