By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
When you’re purchasing your juice or smoothie at a local juice bar it likely comes in a plastic cup. When you pick up a salad at your local salad bar, it likely comes in a plastic container. When you bring leftovers home, it likely comes in plastic.
We live in a world of plastic. It’s in so many products that we use on a daily basis and also in many household products.
Why so much plastic?
Plastics are relatively inexpensive to manufacture and come in many different shapes, sizes, forms and chemical makeups. For the most part, plastic is made from what we call organic materials, which means that they occur naturally; however, there are also many chemically manufactured additives that are non-organic (meaning man-made) that also play an important role in the production of plastic.
The “organic” materials used in the processing of plastic aren’t necessarily the most dangerous– instead, it’s the synthetic additives that seem to be the “bad guys” when it comes to being possibly deleterious to health. Artificial additives such as plasticizers improve durability of the plastic, making it firmer yet more flexible; these additives may more easily breakdown into foods stored in plastic containers, and contribute to that “new car smell” you notice when renting a newer car or even when purchasing one. When that car sits in the sun with the windows up, the heat inside the car causes those chemicals to create that smell – which is simply the chemicals in the plastic used to furnish the car.
What’s up with BPA?
Bisphenol A, or BPA as it’s more commonly known, is a chemically-made component in plastic that has been found to break down over time– particularly when heated. When plastic containing BPA is exposed to heat, the plastic can degrade allowing the BPA (a toxic chemical) to leach out. Research suggests that the amount of BPA that is leached from a single item is low; however, given how much plastic and BPA we are exposed to, this small amount can add up more easily.
When it comes to using plastics as containers for storing or consuming food and beverage, even if food isn’t being cooked in the container, the heat from the dishwasher that the plastic is exposed to may cause breakdown in the seal on the material that can further cause breakdown of the integrity of the plastic which may cause the chemicals in the plastic to be leached out. Even leaving a plastic water bottle containing water in a hot car in the summer may allow for degradation of the material and may also allow for leaching of the plastic into the drinking water. Yikes!
Why is BPA so dangerous?
Research suggests that BPA ingested through food and beverage (although it may be a low dose) can affect and disrupt the endocrine system, a key system that plays a role in controlling longer term effects on the nervous and reproductive systems and on growth and metabolism. The reason that BPA has been found to be particularly deleterious is due to its ability to mimic estrogen and exert estrogen-like effects on the body and seems to effect most those that are in more rapid stages of development such as infants, children and teens.
Some research suggests that BPA may contribute to early puberty in young men and women, and may contribute to ADD (attentional deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Other research suggests that BPA exposure through plastics may play a role in childhood obesity, onset of type 2 diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and even in hormone-mediated cancers such as breast, prostate and colon cancers; recent research suggests that in particular, BPA may speed rate of breast cancer cells, although more research is needed.
Is BPA-free that much better?
Think back to the “fat-free” or “sugar-free” era when all products were made with synthetic chemicals that enhanced flavor or made a product more savory without the added fat or sugar. It wasn’t too long before we discovered that the ingredients that were being used as replacements were actually worse for us than plain fat and added sugar; well, the same thing seems to be happening now with all of the chemicals that have been used to replace BPA. Most of the chemicals used to replace BPA not only haven’t been thoroughly tested, but many have been found to potentially exert the same deleterious effects on our body as BPA.
One of the more commonly used BPA-replacement chemicals- Bisphenol S or BPS, has recently been found to have potentially the same estrogenic-like effects on our bodies as BPA does. Additionally, and although only conducted in animal studies thus far (not as valid as when human data is studied) suggests that BPS may affect heart rhythm and brain structure in the animals tested. Remember this data needs to be backed up by human research to be more valid; however, still significant for the health of the animals tested.
The take home message? Avoid plastics, especially the harder types, whenever you can that includes both plastics that contain BPA and those that are BPA-free.
Which plastic products are most dangerous?
Plastics that have been made to be more durable are those to watch out for. Although bottled water containers should not be reused as they too can break down over time, it appears that the hard plastic water bottles, baby bottles, glasses, dishes, and containers are those to rid out of your house as best you can. Unfortunately, some products are only available in hard plastics – like my juicer for example; therefore to reduce the exposure of these products to high heat, it’s best to wash them by hand in cool water. It’s also key to remember not to heat your food in plastic in the microwave or to leave food inside a plastic container in a hot car.
How you can easily reduce the amount of plastic you eat and drink out of.
Of course it’s impossible to rid yourself of all of the plastic that surrounds you, but it is possible to do what you can to reduce how much you use plastic:
1. Use glass water bottles and never re-use plastic ones.
2. Add your groceries in your cart without the plastic bags. Yes it might be easier when you’re unloading, but bring your own reusable bags instead.
3. Store your food in glass containers.
4. When using plastic containers, hand wash in cold water to minimize the leaching of BPA and BPA-free chemicals.
5. Store your juice in glass jars (mason jars are a great idea!).
6. Make your own food, and skip the BPA cans and pre-packaged food that comes in plastic containers. Best tip: shop the outer perimeter of the grocery store or go to the farmers’ market instead.
7. Do the best you can. Plastic is everywhere but just try your best to minimize your exposure.