What’s better to use to prevent foodborne illness—a wooden or plastic cutting board? You’ve probably heard this question before, and have probably gotten different answers. You’re not alone—even experts disagree on what’s best.
On the one hand, some research suggests that wood is the way to go. In a study that made headlines 20 years ago, microbiologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison contaminated both wooden and plastic boards with bacteria (such as that from raw chicken juice) and then counted the number of organisms left on them over time, including overnight. Contrary to expectations, virtually no bacteria could be recovered from the wooden boards, while the plastic ones were teeming with them. It was theorized that the pores in wood trapped and immobilized the bacteria— after which they presumably died.
A study published in 2014 in Food Control also seems to favor wood. It found that a wooden board contaminated with Listeria (from raw chicken) transferred fewer bacteria to cooked chicken subsequently placed on the board, compared to a plastic board.
Then again, other research supports the notion that plastic is safer. Another study from the 1990s, done by researchers at the FDA and the National Sanitation Foundation, revealed that bacteria absorbed in wooden boards can in fact survive—meaning they could, at least in theory, multiply and recontaminate the surface upon further use.
More recently, a 2011 study in Letters in Applied Microbiology found that smooth wooden and plastic boards retained similar levels of bacteria after chicken contaminated with Campylobacter jejuni was placed on them. But if the boards were gouged, the wooden ones ended up more contaminated than the plastic ones, and they transferred more bacteria to cooked chicken subsequently placed on the board. Moreover, plastic boards (as well as other nonporous surfaces like acrylic and marble) may be less of a food safety risk simply because they are easier to clean.
As the debate continues, what’s a cook to do? The bottom line is really the same it has always been: All cutting boards are vulnerable to contamination regardless of the material—and either a wooden or plastic one is okay as long as you keep it very clean and in good condition.
Getting on board
- After each use, scrub your cutting board in hot, soapy water, then rinse and allow it to air dry or pat it dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. Do not store until it is completely dry. Plastic boards and solid wooden boards are dishwasher-safe, butlaminated boards (made from more than one piece of wood) can crack and split. Take note of cleaning instructions that often come with new cutting boards.
- As an extra safety measure, you can disinfect both wooden and plastic cutting boards with a bleach solution (one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water). Pour the solution over the surface and let it sit for a few minutes; then rinse well and dry.
- Consider bamboo boards. Bamboo (technically a grass) is less porous than hardwoods (such as teak, mahogany, walnut, and maple), resists knife scratches, and is an environmentally sustainable resource.
- If your cutting board has cracks, crevices, chips, or grooves where bacteria can hide, it’s time for a new one. Oiling a wooden board regularly (with mineral or walnut oil, for example) helps prevent cracking. Using a clean cloth, rub the oil into the wood, along the grain; use as much oil as the board will absorb, then wipe off any extra.
- To avoid cross-contamination, reserve one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood, and another for vegetables, fruits, bread, and other ready-to-eat foods that will not be cooked.
- What about boards treated with triclosan? Though this antibacterial agent is effective in reducing microbes, one study found that treated boards were just as susceptible to contamination as other boards. We don’t recommend such boards anyway, given the questionable safety record of triclosan and its possible contribution to antibiotic resistance.
With reporting by Jeanine Barone