The menace of plastic

We have heard a lot about the harm of using plastic containers and that they can contaminate our food by releasing toxic materials, but most of us do not know why these materials are harmful and if they are as harmful as it is claimed? Plastic is used in several different types of household products such as Tupperware, water bottles, cling films and plastic bags. These containers are cheap, light and easy to use and they seem to be the perfect material for food storage but what price do we pay for their convenience? Plastic containers may be in close contact with ready to use or even raw food materials. The main issue with plastic is leaching. All types of plastic contain endocrine disruptors — substances that, when taken into our bodies, alter normal hormonal function. Endocrine disruptors include a long list of chemicals such as dioxins, cadmium, parabens, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, agricultural chemicals, polybrominated flame retardants, and some of the active ingredients in sunscreens. Many of these chemicals can mimic the action of natural estrogen. These foreign estrogens (xenoestrogens) can upset normal hormonal balance, stimulate the growth and development of reproductive tumours (breast, uterine, prostate), impair fertility, and disrupt pregnancy. Worse, many can cross the placenta to affect the foetus and get into breast milk. The most troubling endocrine disruptor is a common ingredient in plastic called BPA. Used to produce polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is found in many drinking containers, the lining of most food and beverage cans, bottle caps, plastic cutlery, plastic food storage containers, toys, dental sealants, some dental composites, water pipes, eyeglass lenses, and more. Polycarbonate is often blended with other plastics to create products such as mobile phone cases, car parts, electronic equipment, medical equipment, and household items. Because BPA is in printer ink, newspapers, and carbonless receipts, most recycled paper contains it, including paper towels and paper used to contain food. Although all plastics break down and leach at some point, certain plastics are more structurally stable than others. What is done with the container (e.g. heating) likewise makes a big difference. Finally, the kind of food or drink kept in it can actually be a factor as well. Plastics of different types are categorised according to their resin numbers as types 1 to 7. While some people just decline all types, some experts believe that high and low density polyethylene polypropylene plastics, due to their being more stable and less prone to leaching, are better when used properly. Polystyrene is linked to cancer, neurological damage, reproductive issues, skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue and compromised kidney function. To minimise the level of leaching there are several steps that can be taken:

♦ It is important to check the type of plastic before buying Tupperware especially when the container is going to be used for a long period of time and may be washed in dishwashers or be used in microwaves.

♦ A baby bottle should be boiled regularly to be sterilised. Bottles made of opaque plastic which are made of polyethylene or polypropylene with no BPA, are better. If not available, bottles with recycle symbols of number 2 or 5 should be obtained.

♦ Another important thing to remember is to use the plastic containers only in accordance with their originally intended use – for example dinner containers should not be reheated in microwave or single use water bottles should not be washed and used over and over, especially after continual washing in a hot dishwasher. Heating all kinds of plastics should be avoided whenever possible. Heating even for short periods can increase chemical shedding.

♦ For ready to use foods which come in plastic containers, the plastic packaging should be removed and glass bowl or stove top pot should be used for heating the food. Using disposable plastic cups should be avoided as far as possible and glass or ceramic cups should be replaced.

♦ Plastic wraps should not touch the food when heating in microwave, Wax paper, kitchen parchment paper, white paper towels, or a domed container that fits over a plate or bowl are better alternatives. ♦ Old, scratched, or cracked containers, or those that have been microwaved many times, may leach out more plasticisers.

♦ Liquids or moist foods are more potential to absorb chemicals from the container especially if they are acidic i.e. citrus juice or tomato paste. These kinds of food should be kept in glass jars.

♦ Plastic bags should be replaced with wax paper sandwich bags or stainless steel Bento boxes. This should be considered particularly at times when direct sunlight or a hot environment is expected.

Choosing appropriate containers and following the proper plastic container usage directions are important steps in reducing the amount of exposure to toxic compound leach, but the most important step is to care for the foods and raw materials which are packaged with inappropriate plastic materials in the first place. To avoid the risk, the best thing is to buy fresh foods. Simply, food should be made from as many raw ingredients as possible. Juice can be squeezed from fresh fruits rather than being bought in a plastic bottle. Precut/frozen vegetables and fruits should be replaced with fresh products. Use of canned and plasticbottled items should be limited. For the foods which cannot be made at home, alternative packing rather than plastic should be purchased, where available. Some frozen product companies now package their products in freezer paper bags instead of plastic. Meat can be bought directly from the counter, where butcher paper instead of plastic wrap is used. Finally, when there are no alternatives, shaving or cutting off the very top layers of items that come into contact with less desirable plastics are good choices. While this might not work so well for some foods, it can be a reasonable option with things like ground meats. Although plastics offer a variety of benefits and it may seem that we cannot get along without them these days, in almost all cases alternatives do exist.


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