What Is Melamine?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 10, 2023
3 min read

Though you’re probably most familiar with melamine tableware, melamine is actually a chemical that is approved for a variety of industrial uses in the U.S.  Melamine is a byproduct of the coal industry. It’s used in the manufacturing of plates, cups, bowls, utensils, plastic products, industrial coatings, and paper products. In some countries, it's used as a fertilizer, but it isn't approved for that use in the U.S.

While there is a danger of melamine leaking into food from serving containers, the risk is low. Most of it is used up in the manufacturing process. Some melamine is left over after manufacturing and can leak into the foods or drinks that come into contact with it. This doesn’t happen under normal circumstances.  

But with food that is acidic — such as orange juice or tomatoes — and is heated for long periods of time, some melamine can migrate into the food. Even when this does happen, contamination is at very low levels — about 250 times less than the level that the FDA considers safe for foods other than infant formula. 

Melamine is considered safe for serving and eating food, but food shouldn’t be microwaved in dishes that contain this chemical. You should only microwave food in containers that are labeled as microwave-safe. 

The FDA has done a safety and risk assessment on melamine to estimate the risk that exposure to it has on human health. It reviewed the scientific literature on melamine toxicity as well as animal studies and concluded that this chemical is safe to use for serving food but not in the microwave.

There have been two widespread events that highlight the risk of melamine toxicity. In 2007, pet food that was manufactured in China and distributed in North America was contaminated with this chemical. This contamination caused the deaths of over 1000 household pets.

In 2008, infant formula was contaminated with melamine. Children exposed to the formula developed kidney stones, and 6 children died. Over 294,000 children were affected by the contaminated formula.

Both of these incidents were the result of deliberate melamine contamination. In the case of infant formula, this chemical was added to make it appear that the milk had a higher protein content. This is because melamine is high in nitrogen. Commonly used protein analysis tests don't tell the difference between protein and non-protein sources of nitrogen.

Adding melamine gives a falsely high protein level. Because this chemical is cheap and readily available, there is a financial incentive to illegally use it in this manner.  

The most widespread health effect of melamine exposure in humans is kidney stones. Other types of kidney damage have also been reported. Kidney stones associated with melamine exposure have a different composition than other kidney stones as they have this chemical in them.  

Several studies have shown that children can form kidney stones even with melamine exposure levels below the World Health Organization's (WHO) standard. Another study found an increased risk of kidney stone formation in adults with low urinary levels of melamine. The effects of chronic low-level exposure aren't known.  

A 2013 study measured the level of melamine in 16 healthy people before and after they ate hot noodle soup served in melamine bowls. The researchers were able to detect this chemical in their urine. Levels peaked between 4 and 6 hours after eating the soup. The study concluded that the consequences of long-term melamine exposure should still be a concern.

Symptoms of melamine poisoning can include:

If you want to avoid melamine, you can use ceramic or glass containers. Another alternative is plastic tableware that is labeled microwave-safe as it doesn't contain this chemical.