Our food, it seems, is always touching plastic. Plastics play a part in
every phase of food production and preparation. Food gets processed on plastic
equipment, and packaged and shipped in plastic-lined boxes and cans. At home,
we store and reheat the leftovers in plastic containers.
As for that strange plastic taste in last week's lo mein -- that's just the
aftertaste of convenience. It couldn't possibly be harmful, right?
Recent health controversies have spawned new discussions about the safety of
plastics in the food industry. In particular, research that's found potential
health risks from bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical in food packaging, has
"For many years, the plastics incorporating BPA were believed to be
safe," says Anila Jacob, MD, senior scientist with the Environmental
Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Now that there are many
questions about BPA, "that does raise broader questions about the safety of
plastics in general," Jacob tells WebMD.
Plastics make getting, eating, and storing food more efficient. But are they
also making us sick?
Plastic in Food: Inevitable Transfer
It's long been known that infinitesimal bits of plastic get into our food
from containers. The process is called "leaching" or
"migration." The chemical industry acknowledges that you can't avoid
this transfer, noting on its web site that "[v]irtually all food packaging
materials contain substances that can migrate into the food they
The amounts are small, says Laura Vandenberg, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in
biology at Tufts University in Boston. "But almost any plastic container
can be expected to leach trace amounts of plastics into food," she
Heating food in plastic seems to increase the amount that's transferred to
food. Migration also increases when plastic touches fatty, salty, or acidic
foods. How much actually gets into our bodies? Vandenberg says that to her
knowledge, there's no research that can answer that question.
Although most of the chemicals making the culinary crossing are considered
"safe," Jacob tells WebMD that's generally not because they've been
proved safe, but rather they haven't been proven to be
"There is very little published research on the potential adverse health
effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it's difficult
to say they're safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term
use," says Jacob.
Two suspects are under active investigation: bisphenol A and a class of
chemicals called phthalates.
Plastics and the BPA Story
Bisphenol A is a material used in hard, lightweight plastics called
polycarbonates. Some baby bottles and water bottles are made from bisphenol A.
Enormous amounts of BPA are produced each year -- about 6 billion pounds.
Although bisphenol A came to fame on the nightly news as a potential poison
in our water bottles, our main exposure comes from the linings of canned foods,
according to Vandenberg, who studies BPA.