Updated: May 24, 2020
Have you ever eaten a meal, at a fine restaurant, or so it looked, but then you go home and something starts churning, followed by a headache? Then you start throwing up or going on a few visits to the bathroom, until it is all out of your system? It has happened to me many times while traveling in many developing countries, much less frequently in the US.
When it does, it may take a couple of days to recover and feel like eating again. It is not fun and it is not the best way to lose a couple of pounds. Besides, it cost you some cash on top of the headache it caused. But the story does not end there and in fact, that is not why I am writing this. I want us to think about another harmful ingredient that may be lurking inside your food, and may never cause the reactions we get from food poisoning. In fact, over time, it could be more damaging, than an occasional bite into spoiled food. If you frequently eat out at restaurants and do not know what’s used to cook, store, reheat, or serve your food, you may be ingesting it regularly. It is not noticeable by eye. In hot liquid, you may see it if you observe carefully. It appears as a thin layer of film. It is well disguised inside the food you eat, especially when it’s hot. This is melted plastic! Containers used to store leftovers, reheat food in a microwave, spoons used for cooking, all have the potential to leach into your food, if you are not careful.
Plastic is probably one the greatest inventions we have ever known. Start with the plastic bag, a simple and seemingly harmless tool for packaging and carrying food from the market or store to your home, but one that is least managed and may be causing one of the greatest damages to the environment. Plastics are used all over the world and their utility is among the widest of common household items, from food service and storage containers including the lining of cans (those not marked as BPA free), to bed frames, shoes, kids toys, baby bottles, car accessories, eye glass holders, fridges, clothes hangers, chairs and iPhone covers. You name it! It can be made out of plastic! Its use is limited only by human imagination.
But is plastic really safe to ingest? This is the question that ran through my head when I surprised myself after seeing a layer of film, of melted plastic, on top of my cup of hot water. By the time I noticed, I had been drinking hot water for several weeks already, a new habit I had adopted after reading that it can help with digestion. At that time, I had finished about half of the water in my plastic cup, perhaps 6 ounces already. There was a part of me that said then and there, “this cannot be ok.” So, I decided to be a little more careful and avoided using plastics for any hot food or drink, whenever I could. I have since learned a little more about plastics and a lot of it has confirmed what I suspected, that it is not ok. Granted, when it comes to what I put inside my body, I now err on the side of caution. And those who say that minute plastic particles are safe have not yet convinced me that they are, especially when ingested over an extended period of time. Once in a while may be ok as the body has detoxification pathways that may remove unwanted particles before there is too much accumulation to cause irreversible harm. So, what have I learned about plastics?
The materials used are not the same. Some are safer than others. The safer ones do not leach into the food easily, they withstand heat better and the particles that leach into the food may not be as harmful to the human body as do the other types. Plastic food containers are marked with a number, usually at the bottom of the container with a recycling symbol. The numbers used are 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Ren Chin in a 2013 blog post titled “Plastic Numbers to Avoid – BPA Numbers”, the plastic containers that are considered safer are those marked with numbers: #1 made of polyethylene terephthalate, #2 for high density polyethylene, #4 for low density polyethylene, and #5 for polypropylene. The ones to avoid are marked with #3, 6 and 7 or not marked at all. The ones with #3 contain Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and #6 contain polystyrene (PS). They both contain harmful phthalate (di-2-ehtylhexyl phthalate- [DEHP]), a known endocrine disruptor and they are likely human carcinogens. Plastics with a #7 are a polycarbonate that contains a compound known as bisphenol-A (BPA), a known hormone disruptor. It is the plastic in many cups, sports bottles, serving bowls, plates, cooking spoons, water jugs, and baby bottles.
Sarah Gottfried, in her book The Hormone Cure places plastics on the list of xenoestrogens, synthetic chemicals that act like your body’s natural estrogen. She uses a vivid analogy that helps illustrate the reaction this artificial estrogen causes inside the body: “Think of them as uninvited guests at a costume party. They act like all the other guests, drinking and chatting convivially, but they are really party crashers who will disrupt the whole affair when they take off their mask.” Three of the ways that these external estrogens crash your party according to Gottfried are: 1) They are stored in your fat tissue for decades; 2) They interrupt the action of natural hormones, “with reproductive and developmental consequences” including the early onset of menstruation and puberty as well as breasts for men, a sign of estrogen dominance; 3) They “wreak havoc on men’s sperm count and prostate cancer rates.” In an article published in Scientific American in 2008, David Biello notes also that BPA the “building block for plastics … mimics estrogens, binding to the same receptors throughout the human body as natural female hormones. And tests have shown that the chemical can promote human breast cancer cell growth as well as decrease sperm count in rats, among other effects.”
BPA leaches from plastics particularly when exposed to high temperatures as I observed from my own plastic cup with hot water in it. The same would occur when used in microwaves or dishwashers, and other household equipment that operates particularly at high temperatures. BPA leaches also when exposed to acidic solutions, something to watch out for whenever some of this plastic is used to squeeze or store lemon juice for example. Mark Hyman, an Integrative Medicine doctor suggests that “if you drink bottled water, [you should] choose glass or clear, hard, durable plastic containers…”. He considers the “soft, opaque, thin, easily bendable plastic” as environmental toxins we should all stay away from. Hyman adds that “soft plastics tend to release toxic chemicals, including phthalates and bisphenol A, which have been linked to hormonal disorders and infertility.”
Plastic melts into your food at restaurants and in ways you may not suspect. Last week, I shared why I have reduced my intake of white rice and the main reason is that it, along with many other foods made with processed white flour, has very little nutritional value. There is something else that increased my dislike of white rice, especially when I eat out. I learned and often checked with the waitress to see whether or not they covered their rice with plastic when cooking it, something I had observed and heard from colleagues while visiting various community development projects on my business trips. More often than not, the waitress told me that the cooks indeed use a plastic bag to cover the rice while cooking it. This supposedly cooked it more evenly and also maintained a consistency and texture that may be hard to retain when the rice is cooked without this plastic cover. During my business trips, I visited a number of homes where corn or rice was being cooked with a plastic cover on. I can guarantee you I ate everything else but neither were on my plate. I did educate my host and colleagues of the risks associated with melted plastic bags into our foods. So, remember that while traveling for extended periods of time, if you eat rice frequently at your hotel or another restaurant, you may get your food served on fancy ceramic or glass plates or bowls. It may taste good, but that should not fool you.
So, what should you do?
First, replace all your unsafe plastic containers and serving utensils with those marked with numbers 1, 2, 4 or 5. In the US, you can buy these at the Container Store or at Bed Bath and Beyond. Some food stores such as Safeway also carry a smaller selection of these as well. Wooden and stainless steel spoons should also replace your plastic spoons for cooking or serving hot food. Until you do this, do your best to avoid keeping them inside your pot while cooking. Just stir and take it out! Even with safer plastics, you can never be overly cautious when it comes to your health. Cool your food completely before you transfer it into plastic containers for storage into the fridge or freezer. If you are going to use the food later in the day, you can keep it in your cooking pots.
Second, never reheat your food on a plastic plate or bowl when microwaving it. You increase your risk of exposure to the toxins they release with high temperatures. Joseph Mercola, another practitioner of functional medicine has many recommendations related to protecting ourselves and the environment from toxic waste associated with an unregulated use of plastic bags and containers. Among his recommendations include: taking your own leftover container to restaurants; bringing your own ceramic or stainless steel mug for coffee and water from home; bringing your own water bottle instead of buying bottled water that often come in plastic bottles; buying fresh produce instead of processed foods in plastic bags; avoiding disposable utensils; and buying foods in bulk whenever possible.
Third, especially while on your international development travels, check with your waitress to see if they use plastic to cover rice or any other food while cooking it. If they do, choose a different food that does not use plastic during cooking. Educate the waitress so that she too knows the risk associated with melted plastic into the foods they serve. If more people stop eating rice because of this dangerous practice common at many restaurants and homes such as those I visited in some parts of Africa, then the word will spread and it will contribute to preventing some health problems associated with a regular consumption of foods in which plastic has melted. While BPA in plastic food containers or bottled water “does not linger in the body for more than a few days because, once ingested, it is broken down into glucuronide, a waste product that is easily excreted” Biello notes that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “found glucuronide in most urine samples collected in 2004 as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body”. This indicates that constant exposure overrides the body’s detoxification capacity, which would enable it to maintain an amount it can safely remove.
Last but not least, educate others to help them stay safe as well. As I reflect on the effects of melted plastic in the food we eat, I cannot help but ask myself the following: Where do the people we target in our community development programs (or in other poor communities) buy their plastic containers? Are there stores there that sell the safer choices? Can they afford these? How many people are aware that not all plastic containers are made with the same materials and that some are safer than others? How many, in those communities we visit regularly and where we implement our programs, know to apply safer practices so as to avoid ingesting plastic on a regular basis? Those who drink their morning tea in a plastic cup are especially at risk of over-consuming the toxins they release. These, to me, are critical community health questions we should be asking and be prepared to address during our visits to various projects we support with donor funds or with our technical expertise. It should be common knowledge that plastic melts and that when it does melt into your food –whether you know it or not – you too will eat it. When this happens, two things will happen: Either you will excrete it if the amount ingested is minimal and only occasional; or it will linger inside your body, increase your body’s toxicity, cause hormonal imbalances, and crash your internal party, as Gottfried puts it. I hope you opt for the former!
Together, we are safer and healthier!
Rose Kadende-Kaiser, Ph.D.
Founder, Season of Health
Integrative Nutrition Health Coach
Biello, David. Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical - Is bisphenol A, a major ingredient in many plastics, healthy for children and other living things? February 19, 2008 In Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a/
Mercola, Joseph. Inside the Garbage of the World. March 21, 2015 at: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/03/21/plastic-trash-ocean.aspx?e_cid=20150402Z1_WNL_art_6&utm_source=wklynl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art6&utm_campaign=20150402Z1&et_cid=DM71191&et_rid=899021562
Chin, Ren. Plastic Numbers to Avoid – BPA Numbers. Saturday June 1st 2013. For Hubpages at: http://www.worldpublicunion.org/2013-06-01-NEWS-plastic-numbers-to-avoid-bpa-numbers.html501
Hyman, Mark. 7 Strategies to Reverse Infertility. October 19, 2015 http://drhyman.com/blog/2015/10/14/7-strategies-to-reverse-infertility/
Gottfried, Sara. The Hormone Cure. 2013. Simon & Schuster. Pp 158-59