The Dixie paper cup company invented the first paper cup in 1908 as a healthy alternative to sharing dippers and germs at public drinking fountains. Since, the Dixie company, now a subsidiary of Georgia-Pacific, has developed a line of household paper products that includes sturdy disposable paper plates for food service. According to the company's frequently asked questions, these plates are safe for use in a microwave oven.
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The concern over microwaving paper products stems from scientific discoveries that heating plastics and polystyrene in the microwave can release toxins into food. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, side effects from exposure to styrene gas, which is released from heating polystyrene plates such as Styrofoam brand include fatigue, headache, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, malaise, difficulty in concentrating and a feeling of intoxication. Long-term exposure can cause cancer. Foods heated in plastics may absorb benzine from the packaging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to benzine products can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion and unconsciousness.
Microwave ovens work by producing electromagnetic radiation at the right wavelength to cause water molecules to vibrate. As the molecules vibrate, they cause the substance in which they exist to heat. The radiation can pass through glass and plastic to heat food. But it also can heat the water in molecules in paper, polystyrene or plastic. Polystyrene products that are heated in a microwave often become warped. Plastic that is not microwave safe can melt. Even microwave-safe plastic will melt if left in the microwave for too long. Thus far there is no evidence to show that paper plates release toxic chemicals when heated.
Paper in the Microwave
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, paper products are safer to use in the microwave than plastic or polystyrene. The USDA website states that paper plates with printed images such as the kind manufactured by the Dixie company are fine for the microwave. But for added protection, one should use only paper plates that have not been dyed, bleached or with printed images in the microwave.
According to the Dixie website's frequently asked questions, plates should be used for reheating foods only and not for cooking. When reheating food in the microwave using Dixie plates, heating times should be limited to 1 to 2 minutes. Longer heating times may cause the juices from food to soak into the plates and harm the structural integrity of the plate as well as making the plate too warm to touch.