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Let's get plastic away from our food
A look at the dismal state of chemicals in food packaging and some ideas for breaking free
Are you concerned about the health risks of plastic contaminants in our food? Us too.
The problem is all too real. Microplastics and nanoplastics enter our bodies through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Detectable levels of bisphenol A (BPA) are now found in the majority of the U.S. population. And The Unwrapped Project reports more than 4,000 chemicals are used in the making of plastic food packaging, many of them known to be hazardous to human health. Yikes!
Manufacturers will tell you that plastics are essential to food preservation and safety in our modern world - and that they have been government-approved for many decades. But you don’t need a chemistry degree to realize that our bodies have a lot at stake.
Chemicals that leach out of plastic materials disrupt hormone balance by mimicking estrogen and impairing reproductive systems. They contribute to cancer risk, and they affect the nervous, endocrine, and respiratory systems. Organ damage, immune and stress responses, and impaired digestion all have been associated with toxins from various types of plastic.
A search of scientific papers exploring health risks of plastics in food returns 800+ studies from the last 5 years alone.
As awareness increases across the globe, public concern is on the rise. But take a look around the grocery store, your favorite restaurant, the cafeteria at work or school, and your own kitchen at home - and you’ll see that plastic is literally EVERYWHERE in contact with our food.
So what’s a health-minded individual to do?
First, let’s try to “wrap” our minds around the nature of the problem. (Hint, it’s not just BPA.) Here are some of the most problematic chemicals associated with the manufacturing, preservation, and transportation of food:
This class of chemicals gives plastic materials their flexibility, and they are commonly found in cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products. They contaminate air, enter our bodies through direct contact with skin, and make their way into food from food processing equipment and packaging. In 2017, the EPA found that 99% of Americans are exposed to this contaminant (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency America’s Children and the Environment, Third Edition; Biomonitoring: Phthalates; 2017).
You probably think of styrofoam as harmful to the environment. It’s terrible for your body, too. This article sums up the history and metabolic pathways for Styrene Toxicity and this study explores how much styrene migrates from food containers into the human body. The state of California has listed styrene as a human carcinogen since 2016, while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says it is “probably carcinogenic.”
Industrial food companies like using PVC as cling wrap, in salad dressing bottles, and for meat trays because it can withstand heat, resist contact with fat and oil, and prevent the growth of bacteria inside the package. But this convenience comes at a cost to the workers who must handle toxic chemicals in the making of PVC, as well as anyone exposed to it when heated. South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan have passed legislation to phase out and eventually eliminate PVC from food packaging due to environmental and public health concerns. Why are the U.S. and other countries not doing the same?
PFAs have been widely covered as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down over time and they bioaccumulate in the body. You may have heard about them in connection with non-stick cookware like Teflon. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Notre Dame found that plastic food containers can contain PFAs that leach when they come into contact with foods like olive oil, ketchup, and mayo.
Other environmental groups such as LeafScore report finding these chemicals in food wrappers, takeout containers, and disposable plates and cups including some compostable brands! PFAs are known endocrine disruptors that affect hormone balance and take a toll on reproduction, growth, and healthy metabolism. You definitely want to minimize exposure to them.
Typically associated with hair and body products, parabens also are used as a preservative in some foods like beer, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, processed vegetables, and flavoring syrups. This was news to us! The U.S. FDA and chemical industry associates continue to insist that parabens are safe to consume, but we don’t trust that message. This article presents a summary of the latest research: Are you eating parabens?
You’ve heard plenty about BPA in recent years and probably have an inclination to avoid it. But did you know that “BPA-free” labels are misleading, and the substitutes are in many cases worse? There has been little to no regulation of the alternatives, and they are proving to be just as toxic to human cells, as this 2021 study found.
If all of this news about plastics makes you want to find new ways to source and prepare healthy food, keep reading for a collection of our best ideas.
Step 1: Change the way you source food
Avoiding plastic contamination of food and drinks means rethinking the household food supply chain. Here are some changes you can make:
Shop the farmers market, where you can buy produce out of baskets instead of wrapped in plastic.
Join a CSA for weekly batches of produce, meat, and dairy all sourced near you.
Co-ops and refill stores like Hello Bulk Markets and fulFILLed in Utah are popping up in many communities. You can bring your own glass or metal containers to stock up on dry goods, cooking oil, and other household essentials.
At big box stores, shop the bulk aisle if allergies aren’t an issue.
Bring your own cotton or paper sacks for produce, and don’t buy the pre-chopped produce that comes in plastic. Avoid lettuce, spinach, kale and other greens that come in plastic bags and clamshell containers. You don’t want triple washed or ready to eat greens anyway, as it means they have been doused in other chemicals. Just buy the bunches or heads and wash them yourself at home.
Learn to make your own sauces, condiments, and salad dressings instead of buying readymade stuff in cans, which are lined with plastic.
Skip the hot food bar, as the containers are lined with plastic and the foods are loaded with industrial seed oils, too!
Break the takeout habit. Eat at home, eat at home, eat at home.
Avoid drinks that come in cans because - more plastic. Remember, BPA-free does not mean plastic-free. Drink water from a glass bottle, and add your own flavoring from lemons, limes, vanilla, etc.
Step 2: Change how you cook
Get rid of non-stick cookware and bakeware, and change to ceramic or cast iron instead.
Use wooden or metal cooking utensils instead of plastic.
Filter your drinking water. Get a countertop filter like The Berkey or install a reverse-osmosis system if possible. Buy water only in glass containers, and take a pass on plastic bottles or plastic lined cans.
Step 3: Change how you store and reheat food
Buy a set of glass or metal containers and put your food in those instead of cheap plastic ones.
Use cloth or wax coverings instead of plastic cling wrap. These come in pretty fabrics and colors, so you can have some fun in the process.
Do not microwave food in plastic - ever. Do not trust microwave-safe claims on plastic. Buy a tempered glass cover instead. We ordered one from Mikro for the Senza test kitchen and it has lasted many years!
Who wants to commit to a plastic-free challenge this summer? Here are a few ideas we are pondering:
What if we all made a simple promise to avoid things that come in clamshell containers?
Is it possible to eliminate plastic zipper-lock bags from the kitchen, once and for all? We’ve reduced our usage of these at Senza HQ with a set of reusable silicone ones, but they are difficult to wash and still have possible issues with leaching into food contents.
Final thought: Growing food on the porch or in the backyard means no transportation and no preservation needed. Plus, direct contact with the earth presents opportunities for grounding and mindfulness. Trading your harvest with neighbors who also grow some food means connecting within the community. Sign us up for more of this!
Here are a few of the many papers and articles we consulted in writing this perspective:
Until next time…