Should plastics come in contact with our food?
Plastic is way too common nowadays for our liking. Just look around. Chances are you’re in contact with some right now. Once seen as a cutting-edge, revolutionary new material, plastic is now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a time without it – particularly when it comes to the packaging of our food and drink.
Tupperware boxes, ready-meal packets, plastic wrap, sandwich bags, frozen packs, water bottles – we could go on. We get through a lot of plastic – and we mean a lot. America alone discards a staggering 570 million pounds of total food packaging each day, with bottled water alone generating over 120 million tonnes of waste each year.
There are upwards of 6,000 different manufactured substances now listed as approved for use in contact with foods, and a large portion of those are plastics. This wouldn’t be a problem at all if these substances were harmless. But they are not harmless. In fact, quite the opposite.
Aside from the obvious environmental impact, the biggest issue with plastic packaging is a process called leaching – whereby the chemicals within the plastic are released from within into the food or drink – which we then of course ingest. Many of these chemicals are known to be harmful to the human body and have been linked to a long and rather worrying list of ailments.
One chemical in particular – Bisphenol A (BPA) – has been shown in several studies to promote breast cancer cell growth and decrease sperm count by mimicking estrogen and binding to receptors throughout the body. While the good news is BPA does not linger in the system and is discarded through urination, the bad news is that because we ingest it so frequently, it is in our bodies far too much of the time.
In a study to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body, The United States Centres for Disease and Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in nearly all of their subjects – ranging from 33 to 80 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day. While it is in itself a relatively low exposure level, it is again the regularity and consistency of exposure that has scientists and health professionals so concerned.
Plastic: Not so fantastic
‘Plastic’ is of course a general term, and it’s important to note that some are more culpable than others when it comes to infusing our food and drink with unwanted chemicals. So let’s now take a deeper look at the main culprits.
There are seven main categories of plastics used in food packaging: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (V/PVC), low density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and “others”, which includes polycarbonates, plant-based polylactide and generic hard plastics.
While none of them are perfect, most experts believe HDPE, LDPE and PP are the best of a bad bunch when it comes to leaching. You’ll find these plastics in things like milk jugs, frozen food bags and ketchup bottles.
The real concern lies with V/PVC, PET, polystyrene and polycarbonates, all of which come in for some serious criticism. V/PVC (most often used to package meat) contains phthalates (a well-known carcinogen), while polystyrene (used in coffee cups and takeaway boxes) has a long rap-sheet linking it to cancer, reproductive problems and even brain damage. Finally, PET (water bottles) and polycarbonates (food storage containers) are responsible for leaching BPA – the all too prevalent chemical we mentioned earlier, which has been shown to have a serious impact on the hormonal balance of the body.
A world without plastic?
So, knowing what we are up against, what can we do to reduce our exposure to these chemicals? Of course, the simple answer would be to avoid all use of these problematic plastics. But let’s face it, in the modern world this is a bit unrealistic. Instead, let’s look at how we can minimise the leaching process and, in turn, lessen our intake of these harmful substances.
First and foremost, only ever use plastic food packaging or containers for their intended purpose. That means no re-filling your water bottle to use again and again. Studies have shown this dramatically increases the chances of leaching.
Equally, try to avoid heating plastic wherever possible, whether that is through microwaving, or even simply leaving your water bottle out in the sun or in the cup holder in your car here in Dubai. Why? High temperatures accelerate the leaching process.
Another good tip is to be careful with personal food storage. Best to keep food and drink in glass containers where possible, and switch to paper wrapping instead of plastic wrapping. And if you must use plastic, be sure to replace your containers regularly with new ones.
I’d also encourage you to try to buy fresh produce instead of pre-packaged whenever you can, and drink tap water rather than bottled water. In places where that is not practical (in Dubai for example we are discouraged from drinking from the tap), then opt for glass bottles over plastic.
Finally, you might also want to test yourself for toxin exposure. It is a standard part of my health screening programs, and tests can include a limited toxin screen just for plastics or a more comprehensive toxin screen for most of the dangerous environmental toxins. By carrying out a few tests you’ll be able to identify any problem areas, and in talks with your physician you should be able to identify the cause of any higher toxin levels, as well as what you can do to reverse the issue.
It all comes down to knowing what you’re putting in your body. Educate yourself. While exposure to harmful chemicals through plastic packaging is to some extent unavoidable in our society today, there are clearly a number of things you can do to limit your overall risk.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.