November 14, 2011

Plastic and Food Safety: Is It Dangerous to Store Food in Plastic Containers? Are Plastics Poisoning Our Food?

Putting your food in plastic containers to store in the fridge, or to heat (or cook) in the microwave: is it safe?  What about buying food that has been packaged in plastic - has that food been compromised?  Does plastic poison food and make the food toxic or carcinogenic?

1.  Answer:  No One Knows - But Some Are Worried

It's pretty much a given among those in both the food and packaging industries that any food that is put into plastic (wrapped, boxed, whatever) will have some of that plastic "leach" or "migrate" into the food.  It's even got a name:  "inevitable transfer."

Doesn't that make you feel safe already?  

In a quote on WebMD, a researcher from Tufts University is quoted, explaining that "virtually all" food that is put into plastic will have trace amounts of plastic leach or migrate into the food.  Heat the food, and this increases.  Also, put certain types of food in plastic and there will be more transfer than with other types of food:  fats, acids, and salts boost the transfer dance.

When asked how much gets from the plastic to the food to our bodies, the Tufts researcher replied that no one really knows -- no research exists to give us an answer to that question.

It gets better.  According to the senior scientist with the EnvironmentalWorking Group, also quoted by WebMD, when food containers are considered "safe" these days, it's not because they have been proved to be safe, but because they have not been proven to be dangerous.  That's a big difference. 

BPA Is Scary

BPA is found in lots and lots of plastic food packaging, and (surprise) it was considered safe until some folk looked a little deeper into the issue and decided that maybe BPA isn't so safe after all.

Scientists are already warning that BPA may be toxic to humans - and while lots of warnings have gone out about water bottles made with BPA, the bigger issue is the BPA that is found in canned foods.  These days, lots of cans are lined with plastic and then food is put in them.  The BPA in that plastic can lining is already known to leach into the food AND into the human body.  What happens then?  No one knows the whole story yet but it is known that BPA will mess with human hormones, particularly estrogen.

Phthalates Are Scary, Too

Phthalates is a name given to a bunch of chemicals used in all sorts of stuff, and today it's sad but true that these phthalates ("THAL-ates") float around in the indoor dust we breathe.  Already, most Americans have phthalates in their bodies according to research studies by the Center for Disease Control, and they are serious even that they've been banned in Europe for several years now.

How does this stuff get into our bodies?  Get this:  it's not clear.  Some think it comes through what we eat, from plastic packaging for example.

What is known is that phthalates also mess with human hormones, in this case, testosterone.

Oh, and cooking in Teflon?  While I was reading up on this, I ran across a warning on WebMD that warns to never cook on non-stick cookware with a pet bird in the kitchen, because the fumes from overheated non-stick cookware can kill the bird "in seconds."

Oh, that makes me feel safe. 

2  What to Do?  Avoid Plastic as Much as Possible, Of Course.

Here are some 15 tips to get Plastics Out of Your Food:

1.  cook in cast iron
2.  avoid a microwave
3.  if you must use a microwave, then wrap your food in paper towels when heating and place on a real plate, not a plastic one
4.  use wax paper to wrap food for storing in the fridge (get some rubber bands, it helps)
5.  save glass jars and reuse them for food storage
6.  eat off of glass plates
7.  drink out of glassware not plastic
8. use metal forks, knives, and spoons (or wooden ones for cooking)
9. throw out your plastic stuff
10.  don't use parchment paper -- it's covered with a "Non-Stick"coating and that is silicon and it's sometimes got some sulfuric acid, too.  It's not just paper. 
11. buy fresh food as much as possible
12. observe how food is packaged and avoid plastic packaging as much as possible, especially plastic bottles
13. once home, store all food in non-plastic containers
14. do not cook with plastic stuff (microwave plates, plastic spoons, nonstick ware)
15.  do not eat with plastic stuff (plastic plates, glasses, etc.) - get paper plates if you don't want to wash dishes!

Sources (in addition to the above hyperlinks):

WebMD (and links therein)
FDA (and links therein)
Univ of Houston (and links therein)

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