Worldwide, 322 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year, 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 certain environmental conditions, such as heat, causes plastic to break down into smaller fragments called microplastics, which can migrate into food.
Single-use water bottles, take-out containers, cans, and storage packaging are examples of common plastic food packaging that contains microplastics. Heating food in plastic packaging, long storage periods, and the type of plastic packaging a person uses all affect the amount of microplastics and harmful chemicals that migrate into food.
Common microplastics in food
Microplastic chemicals in food are a mixture of those that manufacturers deliberately add, such as fillers and stabilizers, and those that accumulate as by-products, such as residues and impurities. Microplastics commonly found in food include:
– Bisphenol A (BPA): Manufacturers use this plasticizer to make polyvinyl chloride, the “parent” plastic of many products .
– dioxin: it is a by-product of herbicides and paper bleaching, which contaminates the environment.
– phthalates: They make plastics more flexible, transparent and durable and are present in many types of food packaging.
– Polyethylene and Polypropylene: They make packaging lightweight and durable and are the most common trusted source plastics in food and the environment.
Microplastics found in smaller amounts in food include BPA and BPF, mono-(3-carboxypropyl), mono-(carboxyisononyl) and mono-(carboxyisoctyl).
The dangers of microplastics
The 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 are some of the dangers of microplastics.
Scientists consider that at least 15 chemicals used by manufacturers to make plastic packaging are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are similar in structure to certain hormones found in the body, such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin, and mimic and disrupt their natural functions, causing adverse health effects and increasing risk of chronic diseases. In particular, research has shown that exposure to BPA plays a role in infertility in both men and women, as well as 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.
Increased risk of chronic diseases
Research continues to show that long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting microplastics increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Experts link higher blood levels of dioxins, phthalates and BP to pre-disease states of inflammation, impaired fasting blood sugar, insulin resistance and obesity, which dramatically increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. Some research suggests that exposure to these microplastics in food is just as detrimental to a person’s health and increases the risk of chronic disease to the same degree as dieting imbalanced.
Impaired immune health
According to a study by 2020, increased inflammation induced by exposure to microplastics leads to poor gut health and, by extension, weakened immunity.
The intestine plays an important role in immunity, since 70 to 80 % of the body’s immune cells are found there. This means that any condition that affects gut health also interferes with immune health. Persistent exposure to microplastics in the gut is toxic to immune cells, causing dysbiosis, disruption of gut microbiota, and leading to overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. Research links dysbiosis to the development of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
In addition, the surface of microplastics can harbor harmful bacteria that further compromise health immune.
How much exposure do we experience?
Microplastics are abundant in the environment, a result that scientists attribute to the massive global production of plastics and widespread pollution. Research suggests that the average person in the United States may consume more than 50 000 microplastic particles per year, just from eating. This figure increases to an estimate of 90 000 among those who regularly consume plastic-based bottled water, and at 120 000 if we consider the inhalation of microplastics from non-food sources.
The authors of a study by 2019 identified an average of 15 microplastics by 000 grams of stool samples from eight participants. These results suggest that the amount of microplastics people come into contact with and consume is much greater than what the experts expected.
How to minimize exposure
If it is not possible to eliminate your exposure to microplastics, you can try to reduce the amount of microplastics you come into contact with and consume.
Here are some tips:
1. Limit ultra-processed foods
Research links the consumption of ultra-processed foods: such as hamburgers, ready-to-eat meals, fries, ice cream , sodas and canned foods, to higher levels of phthalate microplastics in the body. This effect is more pronounced in children. Experts further speculate that the low nutritional quality of ultra-processed foods, combined with the harmful effects of microplastics present in these foods, could be responsible for the development of chronic diseases, including heart disease.
The fix: Choose whole foods and minimally processed foods more often and limit or eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet. This will help reduce the levels of endocrine disrupting microplastics in the body.
2. Choose eco-friendly packaging
Using eco-friendly packaging reduces exposure to microplastics and their migration into 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 storage jars
– rice husk storage bowls and containers
3. Use glass or stainless steel water bottles
Exposure to microplastics is almost 2-3 times higher in people who use water bottles plastic for hydration than those who use alternative water bottles. This may be because the heat and longer storage times that may be common with bottled water increase the migration of microplastics from the packaging into the food and water.
The solution: Replace single-use or BPA-containing water bottles with glass or stainless steel bottles to reduce exposure to microplastics.
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