The Truth About Food and Plastics
A guest post by Laura Trotta
There’s no denying the convenience of plastics in the kitchen. We use them to carry, store and even prepare wholesome food for our families.
But given plastics have been linked with obesity, early adolescence, infertility and even cancer, not to mention the fact that they take hundreds of years, if ever, to break down in our environment, is it wise to pair plastics and food?
In this post I’ll share why we need to be concerned about plastics, plus how you can stay healthy in an increasingly plastic world.
What are Plastics?
Plastics are material consisting of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organics. These aren’t the certified organic kind; organic in a chemical context simply refers to it containing carbon. Typically made from petrochemicals (a non-renewable resource), plastic is cheap and easy to manufacture, versatile, impervious to water and can be re-moulded into solid objects of diverse shapes over and over again. Its versatility has led to plastic becoming our material of choice for so many applications, especially in the kitchen.
Where Are Plastics Commonly Used In Our Kitchens?
Plastics have infiltrated every aspect of our lives and no more than food packaging and storage; around 30% of plastic in western societies is used in food packaging!! When it comes to plastics and food, some of the most common types and uses include:
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – Carbonated drinks bottles, peanut butter jars, plastic film, microwavable packaging.
Polyethylene (PE) – Wide range of inexpensive uses including supermarket bags, plastic bottles.
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) – Detergent bottles, milk jugs.
Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) (Saran) – Food packaging.
Polypropylene (PP) – Bottle caps, drinking straws, yoghurt containers.
Polystyrene (PS) – Food containers, plastic tableware, disposable cups, plates and cutlery.
What Are The Health Impacts Of Using Plastics To Store and Cook Foods?
Reheating food in plastic trays or containers in microwaves is commonplace, as is plastic wrap – from covering the humble sandwich in a child’s lunchbox to wrapping the organic fresh produce in your local supermarket!! Plastics are even used as lining inside metal containers like the humble tin can!
But are these habits impacting our health?
A 2004 study found that “Food packaging can interact with the packaged foodstuff by diffusion-controlled processes which mainly depend on chemical properties of the Food Contact Material (FCM) and the foodstuff, temperatures at packaging, during heat transport and storage, exposure to UV light, and storage time of the product.”i
This interaction can lead to FCM compounds leaching from the packaging to the food, a process known as “migration”.
Food-packaging associated compounds detected in humans include Bisphenol A (BPA), nonylphenol, perfluorinated compounds and phthalates.ii Statistically significant correlations have been found between increased BPA body burdens and cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.iii But, quite possibly, the greatest area of concern lies in plastics containing endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in Plastics
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides and plasticizers, in particular bisphenol A, or BPA can contribute to health problems by mimicking, blocking or otherwise interfering with the body’s natural hormones like oestrogen, androgens and thyroid hormones. Thus, EDCs prevent natural hormones from doing their jobs and they can alter the way cells develop and grow.
Following from research conducted in 2009, the Endocrine Society released a statement emphasizing the danger of EDCs, and how they have linked EDCs to an increased risk of the following human diseases:
Cancers of the breast, prostate and testis
Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
Type 2 diabetes
Allergies and autoimmune diseases
Malformations of newborn male genitalia.iv
Furthermore, some EDCs have been shown to cross the placental barrier, potentially affecting the human foetus by hormonal disruption at sensitive stage of development which could lead to adult diseases.v
Even more disturbing, some EDCs disturb epigenetic imprinting which affects subsequent generations.vi
This research is the most alarming as it suggests that endocrine disrupting chemicals may have the potential to change our genetic makeup.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Plastics and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
The kitchen is an obvious place to focus when trying to reduce your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, given most of the plastics we consume are found here.
Because plastics have literally inundated our lives it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the task of reducing them in your home, but the good news is you don’t need to toss out your entire plastic container collection! Instead, I recommend making small changes focussed on areas of greater risk.
Given the ability for toxins in plastic to migrate to food increases with heat, exposure to UV light and length of time the food in is contact with plastic, it pays to focus on areas where these can come into play.
With this in mind, here’s a few steps you can take to get started to break up with plastics in your kitchen:
- Avoid reheating food in plastic containers. Instead, opt for glass (such as Pyrex dishes), stainless steel or porcelain/china dishes.
- To minimise toxins leaching from plastics into food during storage, avoid placing hot or warm food into plastic storage containers. Instead wait for the food to cool down, or choose a glass or ceramic container.
- If using plastic containers for food storage in your pantry, be sure to turn over stock regularly. When topping up containers place fresher food on the bottom and older food on the top. Alternatively get creative and use glass jars just like your grandmother did!
- Avoid consuming drinks such as mineral water or bottled water that is stored in plastic bottles. They may have been exposed to UV light or heat during transportation or storage that may have increased the likelihood of toxins leaching from the bottle into the beverage.
- Use Bento-style lunchboxes, reusable wrap, food covers and food pouches to replace plastic-film and snap lock bags.
- Eat a diet rich in wholefoods to minimise the opportunity for ingesting foods that have been exposed to plastics during storage.
- By making a few small changes to the way you prepare, store and purchase your food you can go a long way to reducing your exposure to toxins from plastics.
If you’re keen to learn more about creating a cleaner, greener and healthier home by reducing your family’s exposure to toxins including those found in plastics, check out Laura’s website
About the author: Laura Trotta is an experienced environmental engineer, eco-living expert and the creator of the Home Detox Boot Camp. She loves bushwalking and scuba diving and lives with her husband and young sons in Outback South Australia. You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram
i Arvanitoyannis and Bosnea, 2004
ii Muncke, 2009
iii Lang et al, 2008
iv Muncke, 2009
vi Fenton, 2006
vi Anway et al, 2005
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