Globally, 322 million metric tons of plastics were produced in 2016, of which 60% supplied the food and beverage industry for food packaging. These plastics contain an array of chemicals, including stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, and plasticizers.
Exposure to some environmental conditions, such as heat, causes plastic to break into smaller fragments called microplastics, which can migrate into food.
Single-use water bottles, to-go containers, food cans, and storage wraps are examples of common plastic-based food packaging that contains microplastics.
Heating food in plastic packaging, long storage times, and the type of plastic packaging a person uses all affect the amount of the microplastics and their harmful chemicals that migrates into food.
Common microplastics in food
The microplastic chemicals present in food are a mixture of those that manufacturers deliberately add, such as fillers and stabilizers, and those that accumulate as byproducts, such as residues and impurities.
Some common microplastics present in food include:
- bisphenol A (BPA): Manufacturers use this plasticizer to make polyvinyl chloride, the “parent” plastic of many products.
- dioxin: This is a byproduct of herbicides and paper bleaching, which contaminate the environment.
- phthalates: These make plastics more flexible, transparent, and durable and are present in many types of food packaging.
- polyethylene and polypropylene: These make packaging lightweight and durable and are the most common plastics present in food and the environment.
Microplastics found in smaller quantities in food include BPA and BPF, mono-(3-carboxypropyl), mono-(carboxyisononyl), and mono-(carboxyisoctyl).
The dangers of microplastics
Microplastics are the fragments of stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, plasticizers, and other chemicals that manufacturers use to give plastics their desirable properties, such as transparency, flexibility, and durability.
However, experts have classified many of these chemicals as toxic and harmful to human health.
Below, we discuss some of the dangers of microplastics in greater detail.
Scientists consider at least 15 of the chemicals manufacturers use to make plastic packaging to be endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors are structurally similar to some hormones in the body — such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin — and mimic and disrupt their natural functions, leading to adverse health effects and increasing a person’s risk of chronic conditions.
In particular, research has shown that exposure to BPA plays a role in infertility in males and females alike, as well as in the development of polycystic ovary syndrome.
BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone for their receptors, reducing the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.
Increasing risk of chronic disease
Research continues to demonstrate that long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting microplastics increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Experts associate higher blood levels of dioxins, phthalates, and BPs with pre-disease states of inflammation, impaired fasting glucose, insulin resistance, and obesity, significantly elevating the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
Some research suggests that exposure to these microplastics in food causes as much harm to a person’s health and raises their risk of chronic conditions to the same degree as following an unbalanced diet.
Impairing immune health
A 2020 review found that the increased inflammation induced by exposure to microplastics leads to poor gut health and, by extension, weakened immunity.
The gut plays an important role in immunity, with 70–80% of the body’s immune cells being in the gut. This means that any condition that affects gut health interferes with immune health as well.
Persistent exposure to microplastics in the gut is toxic to immune cells, causing dysbiosis — a disruption to the gut microbiota — and leading to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria.
Research associates dysbiosis with the development of such conditions as Parkinson’s disease.
Moreover, the surface of microplastics may harbor harmful bacteria that further compromise immune health.
How much exposure do we experience?
Microplastics are abundant in the environment, an outcome scientists attribute to the massive global production of plastics and widespread pollution.
Research suggests that an average person in the United States may consume over 50,000 particles of microplastics from food alone per year.
This figure increases to an estimated 90,000 in those who regularly consume plastic-based bottled water, and to 120,000 when considering the inhalation of microplastics from non-food sources.
The authors of a 2019 study identified an average of 20 microplastics per 10 grams of stool samples from eight participants.
These findings suggest that the amount of microplastics that people come into contact with and consume is much greater than experts once anticipated.
How to minimize exposure
While eliminating your exposure to microplastics may not be possible, you can try to reduce the amount of microplastics you come into contact with and consume.
Here are some tips:
1. Limit highly processed foods
Research associates consumption of highly processed foods — such as hamburgers, ready-to-eat convenience meals, French fries, ice cream, soda, and canned foods — with higher levels of phthalate microplastics in the body. This effect is more pronounced in children.
Experts further speculate that the low nutritional quality of highly processed foods, combined with the harmful effects of the microplastics present in those foods, may be responsible for the development of chronic conditions, including heart disease.
The solution: Choose whole foods and minimally processed foods more often and limit or eliminate highly processed foods from your diet. This will help lower levels of endocrine-disrupting microplastics in the body.
2. Choose eco-friendly packaging
Using eco-friendly packaging reduces the exposure to and migration of microplastics in the food supply.
The solution: Opt for the following:
- glass storage containers, portable bowls, and water bottles
- stainless steel bento boxes and reusable water containers
- bamboo lunch boxes, bowls, utensils, and pantry storage jars
- rice husk bowls and storage containers
3. Use glass or stainless steel water bottles
Exposure to microplastics is almost 2–3 times higher in individuals who rely on their fluid intake from plastic water bottles than in those who use alternative water bottles.
This may be due to the fact that heat and longer storage times that may be common with bottled water increase the migration of microplastics from packaging into the food and water.
The solution: Replace single-use or BPA-containing water bottles with glass or stainless steel ones to reduce exposure to microplastics.
The bottom line
Microplastics are the fragments of stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, plasticizers, and other chemicals manufacturers use to give plastics their desirable properties, such as transparency, durability, and flexibility.
Microplastics migrate into the food supply and cause health issues, such as increased inflammation, impaired fasting glucose, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Exposure to microplastics through food is high, but you can minimize it by limiting your consumption of highly processed foods, choosing eco-friendly food packaging, and replacing plastic water bottles with glass or stainless steel ones.
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