It seems like one way or another, our food is always touching plastic. From the bag or package it comes in to storing leftovers in plastic containers, we use it constantly while the food is in our possession. But even before we pull food from the grocery shelf, it is processed on plastic equipment and shipped in plastic-lined boxes and cans.
So surely such a widely used product must be safe, right? Unfortunately, no. The chemicals in plastic are able to leach into our food, and manufacturers have no requirements to disclose which chemicals they use.
There are big question marks about the safety of a lot of different plastics, but we know that a common additive called BPA (bisphenol A) disrupts the endocrine system and may be linked to behavioral issues, cancer, and heart disease.
Plastic certainly makes our lives more convenient, but that bitter aftertaste in foods that have been stored for a long time or else cooked in plastic tells us something. There are many problematic things about our reliance on plastic – we are going to delve into seven compelling reasons to break the plastic habit, especially when it comes to your food.
There are many different kinds of plastics and they are all coded with a number. Consumers use these numbers to determine whether a particular plastic is recyclable. For manufacturers, the numbers denote a particular “recipe.” Plastic #7 is hard polycarbonate plastic, and it’s the type that contains BPA.
BPA builds up in our bodies over time and disrupts the endocrine system as well as ups the risk of several deadly diseases, cancer and heart disease among them. Children, including infants and fetuses, are particularly susceptible to the effects of BPA that has leached into our food. That’s why a recent push banned BPA from things like baby bottles and sippy cups.
But BPA shows up many more places, some that you wouldn’t expect. It lines the aluminum cans that contain soups, fruits, and vegetables. It is in receipt paper, soda cans, DVDs, and insulated coffee mugs. Look for the BPA free label on as many products as possible to limit your exposure.
Here’s more bad news for youngsters. Soft plastics that show up in all sorts of children’s toys are made with phthalates to keep the material pliable. This is PVC, or plastic #3. Phthalates do not chemically bind with PVC, so they are easily leached into skin or any food they touch.
Studies show that phthalates harm the endocrine and reproductive systems of developing children, and may even increase the risk of liver cancer. The headache-inducing smell of fresh PVC can give you a clue to its toxicity.
They can be difficult to avoid entirely, but one sneaky place they show up is in body washes and other hygiene products. Look for a phthalate free label on those things you deliberately spread on your family’s skin.
You probably already know that plastic water bottles are an environmental disaster, but you may not realize the threat they pose to our health. The plastic used in these bottles is PET #1, and it uses a chemical called antimony as a catalyst. Researchers suspect that antimony ups lifetime cancer risk.
More studies are needed to determine the full risks associated with consuming antimony in water, but we know that it does leach out of water bottles. Adverse health effects have been documented in people who work with antimony professionally after inhalation, oral, or skin exposure to the chemical or its associated compounds.
The kind of plastic that makes up most of our food storage containers is called polypropylene (plastic #5). For quite some time #5 has been considered a healthy alternative to BPA plastic. However, it was recently discovered that antibacterial additives leach out of it, further cementing the conclusion that there is no safe plastic.
As a relatively new discovery, not much has been done in the way of research on the harm we might experience by our use of #5 plastics. However, our guts need to maintain a delicate balance of bacteria in order to function properly, and ingesting antibacterial additives can certainly threaten that.
Teflon is a type of non-stick plastic that coats some pots and pans. We don’t have any evidence that Teflon is toxic if swallowed, but it can release toxic chemicals at very high temperatures (over 500 degrees). Teflon also releases dangerous chemicals during manufacture and disposal.
You could theoretically be safe from Teflon exposure as long as you don’t broil food in pots that contain it. But to be truly safe, opt for cookware made from safer materials.
Cast iron and ceramic are good choices. Know that Teflon is also used in the lining of nonstick packaging for items like microwave popcorn and fast food containers.
6. Inevitable Transfer
We have known for a long time that there’s no way to avoid having small bits of plastic leach or migrate into our food. The chemical industry acknowledges this but stresses that the amount is very small. What they don’t tend to mention is that many of these chemicals cannot be processed by the body, and instead take up residence in our fatty tissue and continue to grow in concentration over the years.
If you’re not ready to break the plastic habit, there are a few ways to minimize exposure. For example, never heat food in plastic as this increases the amount of transfer.
The level of migration also increases under the influence of salty, fatty, or acidic foods. If you use plastic wrap to cover food, ensure that plastic doesn’t physically touch food by using toothpicks to keep the it elevated.
7. It Damages The Environment And Infiltrates The Food Chain
It’s not news that plastic does not biodegrade and is building up at an alarming rate in landfills. Even worse, it finds its way into our waterways and oceans. A notable example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of floating plastic particles that represents just one of many trash “islands” in the world.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but it does break down into smaller particles under the influence of sun and water. These smaller particles are eaten by fish and birds, thereby making their way into the food chain. Of course, ingesting so much toxic non-food is also causing harm to the populations of these animals, reducing their numbers and threatening some with extinction.
It is not easy to avoid plastic entirely because of its prevalence in our food supply. However, there are some easy steps you can take to minimize your exposure. To start, switch to glass storage containers, drinking vessels, and baby bottles. Use paper towel in the microwave to catch splatters rather than plastic wrap.
It also helps to hand wash plastic vessels, rather than put them in the dishwasher, and to discard any plastic that is scratched or warped. Little by little, if we can reduce our dependence on plastic, the health of the earth and all of earth’s creatures will improve exponentially.