Wood vs. Plastic: The Great Cutting Board Debate
It has long been the commonly held belief that plastic cutting boards are more sanitary than wood. Plastic is non-porous, while wood has all those little holes for bacteria to wiggle their way into, just waiting for the opportunity to latch onto your food and make you (or your customers!) sick.
It’s supposed to be common sense, right? Not necessarily. It might surprise you to learn that wood’s porous nature, rather than being its greatest weakness, is in fact its saving grace.
The Science of Slicing
To explain how this seemingly counterintuitive fact was discovered, we must first introduce you to one of the late superstars of the food safety community: Dr. Dean Cliver. Dr. Cliver was a renowned food safety scientist, who once wrote this biography of himself:
“Dr. Cliver officially retired October 1, 2007, and is winding down from 46 years in academia, battling infectious agents in food and water. His research career has led him to see the world as if peering outward through the anal orifice: this ‘reverse proctoscopy’ confers a unique viewpoint.”1
In the late 1980s, Cliver was a 30-year veteran of food safety science, having worked for the U.S Biological Laboratories, Food Research Institute, and University of Wisconsin’s Department of Bacteriology. Suffice to say, he knew what he was doing, even though when he started this particular line of research he had no idea what a can of worms he was about to open. Around this time, Cliver set out to develop a way to sanitize wooden chopping boards that would make them nearly as safe as plastic. What he found instead would shake up what the food safety world had taken as gospel for decades.
As he began applying bacteria to wooden cutting board surfaces, he discovered something amazing: soon after application, the bacteria had disappeared. No washing, no sanitizing – the bacteria was just gone.
As you might guess, this revelation caused the shift of Cliver’s research to comparing plastic and wooden cutting boards – especially once Cliver contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture only to be told the researchers there had no real scientific evidence to support their recommendation to use plastic cutting boards rather than wooden. Cliver soon discovered that the bacteria were being pulled into the wooden cutting boards via capillary action, where they were unable to multiply and soon died. Cliver found that the bacteria, once pulled into the wood, did not resurface to potentially contaminate food. In fact, the only way he could even find the bacteria was by forcing water all the way through the board or by cutting it open.
When Cliver applied the bacteria to plastic cutting boards, he found that they lived much longer on the surface of the board. A new plastic board could be cleaned and disinfected, but a knife-scarred board gave the bacteria too many hiding places and couldn’t be thoroughly disinfected.
If that weren’t enough for you, a simultaneous study was meanwhile determining that people who used wooden cooking boards in their home kitchens were less than half as likely than the average person to contract salmonella, while those who used plastic were twice as likely to contract the disease. This study even determined that the cleaning method had no effect on the incidence of illness – just the type of cutting board.
This is not to say that plastic cutting boards have no place in the kitchen. Wooden boards are generally more expensive than plastic, so for those on a tight budget, plastic may be the best way to go. However, keep in mind that they will need to be replaced more often, as the scarring from your knives damages the board’s surface. They may also cause your knives to need to be sharpened more often, as wood is gentler on the sharp edge than plastic. Another benefit of plastic is the easy upkeep. Use it, wash it, replace it when scarred – not too difficult. Wooden boards require a more intensive maintenance routine, which isn’t always feasible, especially in a busy commercial kitchen.
The big debate currently going on in the world of plastic cutting boards is the use of triclosan. This is an antimicrobial and antifungal compound often found in soaps and detergents and used as a coating for some plastics. The FDA says that triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans, but due to a lack of studies on the compound, revoked its ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ status in 2013. Add to that the fact that several studies have shown that a triclosan coating does little to aid in sanitation2, and many people prefer to do without it.
In the end, the USDA changed its recommendations to include both wood and plastic cutting boards. When it comes to safety, either one is acceptable, as long as the board is maintained properly and replaced when necessary.
As the science behind wooden cutting boards has become well known, many people have reconsidered their stance on which cutting board they prefer, even keeping multiple types in their kitchen. As with most Internet debates, however, this one is likely to go on forever.
1. Food Safety Leader Dean Cliver Passes Away. Barfblog. Accessed January 2016.
2. The Effectiveness of Triclosan-Incorporated Plastic Against Bacteria on Beef Surfaces. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed January 2016.