Microplastics Hidden in Our Food

As food sleuths, we have a lot on our radar. Each person’s list is different, but these are some of the things we may be choosing to examine more closely: sodium, artificial ingredients, dairy, saturated and other fats, organic, processed, animal products, genetically modified (GMO), locally grown, sugar, nutrient density, and microplastics. What! Microplastics? What does that have to do with the food we eat? Plenty!

We know we have a plastic problem in the United States. According to Statista, the U.S. produced 487 pounds of plastic waste per person in 2019—five times that of the global average. It affects climate change since 98% of single use plastics—items like bags, bottles, straws, and food wrappers—are produced from fossil fuels. About 36% of plastics are in the form of packaging and include food and beverage containers—85% of which are sent landfills according to the United Nations Environment Programme.[i]

A January, 2024 Consumer Reports article revealing the findings of their study of microplastics and phthalates in food created a flurry of articles on the subject. Although this is not the first study published on microplastics in our food, this latest report brings the subject to the forefront of conversations once again. Phthalates are a group of man-made chemicals used in the manufacturing of certain plastics to make them more flexible and durable. Nine phthalates are FDA approved for use in the manufacturing food packaging. Because phthalates do not chemically bind to the plastic, they can migrate and leach into food and beverages. In addition, plastic breaks down into smaller microplastics, releasing phthalates which can be found in soil and water.

Consumer Reports tested 2-3 samples of 85 different brand name food products. A list of these products can be found at www.consumerreports.org/magazine/2024/02. Canned beans, condiments, beverages, infant food, meat and poultry, prepared meals, seafood, fast food, grains, and fruits and vegetables were all tested. Phthalates were found in all but one of the 85 foods sampled.

As plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, we can be exposed and ingest microplastics in many ways. Plants that are watered with water containing microplastics or that are grown in soil that has synthetic film or mulch covering the soil that has broken down, can absorb phthalates from the microplastics. As food is being processed, it also touches various plastics such as conveyer belts, plastic gloves, and plastic tubing that can shed phthalates. Food packaging, food wrapped in plastic, and cans that are lined with BPA when broken down release phthalates. We can inhale microplastic particles that are in the air.

Some phthalates can disrupt hormones by turning them on or off or changing hormone signals and can be linked to miscarriages, hormone related cancers, diabetes, and reproductive issues.

I am writing this article, not to alarm you, but make you aware of sources of microplastics in our food system. When we have this awareness, we can modify our habits in several ways to reduce our exposure. Here are some things we can do:

  1. Don’t drink bottled water. Use instead your own glass or stainless container for water. If you must occasionally drink water from a plastic bottle, keep it out of the sun or hot car to reduce the number of phthalates released.
  2. Buy fresh produce that is not in packaging.
  3. Store leftover food in glass containers or jars.
  4. Don’t heat or microwave food in plastic containers.
  5. Food bought in bulk will have less packaging vs. individually packaged food.
  6. Bring your own container (glass) to a restaurant to take home leftovers to avoid using styrofoam or other takeaway containers.
  7. Refuse plastic straws.
  8. Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Disposable beverage cups may have an interior coating to prevent liquids from leaking that releases phthalates.
  9. Use a wooden cutting board rather than a plastic cutting board.
  10. Avoid canned foods and instead cook your own vegetables, beans, soups, etc. Cans could have a lining that protects them from corroding that can release phthalates.
  11. Bring reusable bags when shopping. Keep the bags in your car so you don’t forget to bring them.
  12. Use reusable beeswax sheets rather than plastic food wrap.
  13. Refrain from cooking/heating frozen prepared meals in their microwavable packaging.
  14. Plastic containers with the numbers 2, 4, or 5 may reduce exposure to phthalates and BPA. Avoid plastic containers with the numbers 1 or 7.
  15. Filter tap water by using ceramic or carbon filters (not made of plastic) that are certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association.
  16. Foods high in antioxidants, selenium, and chlorella will bind to toxins, helping the body eliminate them.

In April 2024, the European Parliament approved a proposal to ban some single-use packaging. Single-use packaging for fruits, vegetables, condiments in fast food restaurants, plastic bags for groceries, and mini cosmetic bottles in hotels would be banned in 2030. Also 90% of single use plastic cans and bottles would need to be collected, avoiding the landfill, beginning in 2029. Except for wine, drink distributors would be required to have 10% of their packing be in reusable packaging starting in 2030, as well as takeout food outlets would allow customers to bring their own coffee cups and reusable containers. These laws still need the formality of final approval from European Union countries. To reduce our rising use of disposable plastics, let’s hope the United States follows the European Union’s lead

[i] Our Planet is Choking on Plastic. United Nations Environment Programme. Accessed 09 May 2024.www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution .

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