When it comes to keeping your food safe from dirt, bugs, microbes, and moisture, plastic has a lot going for it. Compared with other food packaging and storage materials, plastic also is lightweight and cheap. But, is it safe?
It’s a good question. Chances are you’ve heard about concerns going back many years over a plastic ingredient called bisphenol A (BPA). It used to be in most clear plastic bottles, including those used to feed babies. BPA has also been used in the linings of cans that hold soups, beans, and other nonperishable foods.
The problem is that some of that BPA can leach out from the plastic or linings into the foods or beverages inside. That’s especially true if you heat it up. BPA acts in our bodies like the hormone estrogen. Worries started in the 1990s after a study showed that BPA fed to pregnant mice at low doses caused problems in their male offspring. Lots of studies linking BPA to various health concerns in animals followed.
While harder to pin down, other studies suggested links from BPA exposure to human health and behavioral problems, too, especially in kids. A recent study linked greater BPA exposure to a greater risk of death.
The FDA considers BPA safe at the low levels that end up in food. Still, the FDA stopped allowing BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012. Soon after, they stopped it in infant formula packaging, too. A recent scientific review of evidence on BPA sounded the alarm that there’s still too much BPA out there.
But, chances are the water bottle you’re using to carry water to the gym or on a hike no longer contains BPA. Many canned goods manufacturers have started to phase it out, too. You can take more steps to avoid it by reading labels carefully and avoiding plastic containers or cans that might contain it. So, problem solved?
More Questions on Bisphenols
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, says Frederick Vom Saal, PhD, an emeritus professor at the University of Missouri, who has long studied the effects of BPA and other synthetic chemicals that act like estrogen.
“There are about 50 BPA analogs -- BPS, BPF, BPB, and on and on and on,” he says. There’s a smorgasbord of these, and BPA-free means that one of these other bisphenols has replaced BPA.”
These other bisphenols are structurally similar to BPA. Recent studies suggest BPA substitutes aren’t any safer than BPA and could even be worse in some cases, Vom Saal says.
For example, one study found that BPA-free plastic bottles do release substitute called BHPF into drinking water. Researchers found that even low doses of BHPF can cause poor pregnancy outcomes in female mice, among other problems. They’ve also found BHPF in some people who regularly drink water from plastic bottles.
Another report showed that almost all BPA-free plastic still leaches chemicals that act like estrogens, same as BPA. More study is needed to know what the effects will be. But, it looks as though less exposure to BPA has meant more exposure to a mix of other closely related chemicals, with uncertain effects on your health.
More Chemical Concerns
When it comes to plastic and food, bisphenols aren’t the only worry. Chemicals called phthalates (or ortho-phthalates) also seep into food from plastic tubing, lids, gloves used in food prep, and food packaging. Phthalates make polyvinyl chloride and other plastics more flexible.
Researchers have found phthalates in food and in people. They’ve also been linked to an increased risk for infertility, especially in men.
Ami Zota, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and others also recently issued a report outlining evidence that phthalates affect brain development, leading to greater risks for learning, attention, and behavioral disorders in children. Phthalate exposure in the womb has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lower IQ, social challenges, and other issues.
An earlier study by Zota and her colleagues found that people who eat out more at restaurants and especially fast food outlets have greater phthalate exposure than those who eat more at home. Adolescents who ate out the most had phthalate levels more than 50% higher than people who only ate at home. Cheeseburgers and other sandwiches appeared to be the worst offenders.
Even if you skip the plastics and fast food, there are still other chemicals to watch for in your food, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS include thousands of chemicals used, among many other things, to make your pots and pans nonstick and your paper food wrappers water and grease resistant.
If you drip water on paper used in food packaging or preparation and it beads up on the surface, it almost surely contains some kind of PFAS. It isn’t clear how much leaches from pans or wrappers into food, but PFAS is also a common contaminant in the water you drink and use in cooking.
“They’re known as ‘forever’ chemicals because they stay in the environment a long time and circulate with the water cycle,” says Courtney Carignan, PhD, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University. “They also stay in our bodies, and the few that have been studied have been found to effect many of our bodily systems, including [the] immune and reproductive [systems], and have been linked to some types of cancer.”
What You Can Do
“Phthalates, PFAS and bisphenols are getting into the food because they are in material that contacts food,” Zota says. “They also are getting into the food because they are now ubiquitous contaminants. They are in the animals, plants, and soil. They are in the food stock and there are other points of entry through the food supply chain. This stems from the fact that we often use industrial chemicals before they are thoroughly evaluated for health, safety, and environmental persistence. They end up in our environment, in our bodies, in our food.”
The bottom line is that our food and our bodies contain a complex brew of industrial chemicals used in food production, packaging, and preparation. Over time, repeated exposure to small amounts of these chemicals may add up and lead to health problems in complex ways that are hard to pin down. Experts think these chemicals could play a role in a variety of worrisome health trends, including increased infertility, obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and even autism.
“By no means are these endocrine disrupting chemicals the sole driver of these trends, but for certain health issues there is compelling and substantial evidence our exposures are contributing and it’s worrisome,” Zota says.
While there’s no way to avoid these chemicals entirely, there are things you can do to limit your exposure:
- Eat more fresh foods and less packaged and overly processed ones.
- Don’t eat microwave popcorn or greasy foods wrapped in paper.
- Filter the water you drink and use in cooking with an activated carbon filtered pitcher or reverse osmosis system under your sink.
- Avoid plastics when you can.
- Never heat your food in plastic.
- Don’t eat out too often, especially at fast food restaurants.
- Encourage stores, companies, and policymakers to pay attention to these chemicals and support more study and more limits.
“It’s very difficult or even impossible to avoid these chemicals, even for experts,” Carignan says. “An important way that people can make an impact is by becoming informed and using their vote and consumer choice to influence change.”