What’s in Wood Cutting Boards?
And how to pick the healthiest ones
With plenty of time at home in the last 12 months, we've all visited the kitchen more frequently – and gladly. This, of course, means that we're basically certifiable chefs. (And how could we not be after streaming all of the known tele-verse? There's now time and much inspiration to mince fresh garlic into culinary fairy dust.) While you've been chopping away, have you ever wondered what goes into those beautiful wooden or bamboo cutting boards? Especially the ones with blocks of wood artfully stuck together? We wondered too, so we looked into it. Read on to learn more!
Wood: the Good
Prepping food on wood or bamboo cutting boards has a number of known benefits. Unlike plastic, wood doesn't contribute microplastics into our food (or the environment!), and bamboo is a quickly regenerated sustainable resource. Wood materials also have antimicrobial properties, in part because they can absorb and trap bacteria deep in the wood fibers! (3) Studies have shown that properly cleaned and dried wood cutting boards harbor very few live bacteria on the cutting board surfaces (1-5).
What About the Other Stuff?
Some wood cutting boards are crafted out of single blocks of wood, but more commonly they contain pieces that are glued together. Cutting board materials fall under the FDA's "food contact substances" and "indirect food additives" regulations since any part of a cutting board could potentially touch our food (6). When FDA-approved food contact substances like glue resins/polymers are completely cured (totally dried), they are considered food safe (7). Even so, some approved substances like melamine-formaldehyde resins can release harmful gases and cause other issues for human and environmental health (8). Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and chronic low-level melamine exposure is associated with early kidney disease, among other problematic health outcomes (9). (See our article on melamine dishware to learn more about why it's not great for health). Petroleum-derived wood preservatives like paraffin wax and petroleum hydrocarbon resin are also not great for the environment.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while the FDA requires imported products to comply with the same US safety regulations, unfortunately sometimes these products are non-compliant (10). Look for products that specifically state that they meet FDA food contact regulations, or ask the manufacturer if you're not sure! Imported wood also might require fumigation with methyl bromide prior to shipping to the US, depending on what type it is and where it's coming from (11, 12). While pest management is an important step to prevent the introduction of disease or invasive species from abroad, methyl bromide contributes to ozone layer depletion and can cause system-wide bodily harm to those spraying it (13). (Bamboo timber is generally allowable without any treatment if it meets certain conditions(14).) The bottom line is that some glues, products, and practices are definitely better than others, so it's a good idea to look for wood cutting boards that minimize these health and environmental risks.
5 Recommendations for Choosing a Healthy Wood Cutting Board
We know it can be overwhelming to research the healthiest options out there, so here are 5 recommendations to help your browsing:
- Choose wood or bamboo over plastic – even with the possible concerns listed above, wood is still a better choice for decreasing your microplastic and toxin exposure!
- Look for cutting boards made from a single piece of wood (to get you started, here are non-toxic cypress, Vermont maple, and teak options). You can also find Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified boards that minimize environmental harm by using sustainably harvested woods.
- If you choose a cutting board made from multiple glued pieces (which are frankly beautiful and more widely available), make sure the glue used is free from formaldehyde and melamine. Some bamboo cutting boards like this one have a pressure/heat treated process that allow for a glue-free surface.
- Pick cutting boards with mild non-toxic coatings like beeswax (or look for an unfinished one that you can finish yourself with our DIY cutting board oil recipe below!)
- If you're not sure what types of glue or coatings a manufacturer uses (or if you want to make sure it's FDA-approved), feel free to contact them and ask what types of ingredients and regulations they use and follow. You would definitely not be the first person to ask! For reference, Titebond III and Gorilla Wood Glue are both considered safer for food contact.
DIY Cutting Board Conditioner Oil
To help you maintain a lustrous, resilient and non-toxic cutting surface, here's our simple cutting board conditioner recipe:
- 3/4 cup MCT oil (or walnut oil)
- 1/4 cup beeswax
- Directions: Melt the oil and beeswax together in the microwave or on the stovetop, then brush the mixture onto your cutting board and let it soak in for 3 hours. You can seal your boar as often as once a month, but we find that sealing it just a few times a year works well too!
If you're looking for a refresher on wood cutting board cleaning recommendations, we've got you covered here. Enjoy your culinary endeavors!
- Moore, Ginny, Ian S. Blair, and DAVID A. McDOWELL. "Recovery and transfer of Salmonella typhimurium from four different domestic food contact surfaces." Journal of food protection, vol. 70, no. 10, 2007, pp. 2273-2280. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X-70.10.2273
- Lücke, Friedrich-Karl, and Agnieszka Skowyrska. "Hygienic aspects of using wooden and plastic cutting boards, assessed in laboratory and small gastronomy units." Journal für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit, vol. 10, no. 4, 2015, pp. 317-322. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00003-015-0949-5
- Boursillon, Dominique, and Volker Riethmüller. "The safety of wooden cutting boards." British Food Journal vol. 109, no. 4, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1108/00070700710736561
- Ak, Nese O., Dean O. Cliver, and Charles W. Kaspar. "Cutting boards of plastic and wood contaminated experimentally with bacteria." Journal of Food Protection, vol. 57, no. 1, 1994, pp. 16-22. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X-57.1.16
- Cliver, Dean O. "Cutting boards in Salmonella cross-contamination." Journal of AOAC International, vol. 89, no. 2, 2006, pp. 538-542. https://doi.org/10.1093/jaoac/89.2.538
- Liu, Chia-Chu, et al. "Interrelationship of Environmental Melamine Exposure, Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress and Early Kidney Injury." Journal of hazardous materials, vol. 396. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2020.122726