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Pots, Pans, and Plastics: A Shopper's Guide to Food Safety

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Phthalates: Is Your Food Plasticized? continued...

Researchers believe most of the phthalates in our bodies come from food. But they don't know exactly how and in what amounts. According to studies cited by the Department of Health and Human Services, phthalates on crops might accumulate in the livestock we eat. Or, phthalates in plastic packaging could leach into the food inside.

Like BPA, phthalates disrupt hormones -- in this case, testosterone. "Phthalates are thought to block the action of testosterone in the body, with significant effects on the male reproductive tract and other organs" in high-dose animal studies, Vandenberg tells WebMD.

People are exposed to much lower levels, and government and industry have considered phthalates to be safe. A 2000 NIH panel concluded that food exposures of phthalates pose "minimal concern" for most people, including children and developing fetuses.

But a handful of well-conducted studies have questioned phthalates' safety. Higher levels of phthalates in the body have been linked to low sperm count and quality in adult men. In one highly publicized study, pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates were more likely to bear baby boys with subtle genital changes -- namely, a slightly shorter distance between the anus and scrotum.

Avoiding phthalates is tricky, because they're so widespread and it's unclear where the greatest exposure comes from. You can reduce phthalate exposure from plastics by following the tips in the next section.

Pots, Pans, and Plastic: Sticky Questions

Teflon and related nonstick coatings on pots and pans aren't widely suspected of being toxic if swallowed. However, Teflon and all nonstick cookware can release toxic chemicals during manufacture and disposal, as well as during use at very high temperatures -- temperatures over 500 degrees.

The same chemical used in nonstick cookware is also used in the linings of nonstick packaging like that used for microwave popcorn and some fast-food containers.

You can avoid any exposure to these chemicals by following these tips:

  • Never preheat your nonstick cookware on high. Empty pans can reach high temperatures very quickly. Stick to as low a temperature as possible to safely cook the food.
  • Don't put nonstick cookware in an oven over 500 degrees.
  • Run an exhaust fan over the stove while using nonstick cookware.
  • Never cook on Teflon or other nonstick cookware with a pet bird in the kitchen. The fumes from an overheated pan can kill a bird in seconds.
  • Opt for cookware that is made from safer materials like cast iron.
  • Reduce your consumption of microwave popcorn and fast foods.

To reduce your exposure to the chemicals in plastic, use these strategies:

  • Use a paper towel instead of plastic wrap in the microwave.
  • Don't microwave food in plastic containers (put food on a plate instead).
  • Use safer dishware made from materials like glass or stainless steel.
  • Avoid use of plastic containers with the number 3 or 7 on them. Plastics with the number 1 (typically used for water and soda bottles) are single use only. Recycle after use.
  • Use tempered glass baby bottles instead of plastic. If you use plastic bottles, don't heat them.
  • Store food in glass or Pyrex containers, rather than plastic.
  • Discard scratched or worn plastic containers.
  • Hand wash plastics to reduce wear and tear.
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Reviewed on December 19, 2008
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