How to Protect Your Health From Plastic Meal Containers
By Cassandra Forsythe-Pribanic, PhD, RD
They’re a common lunch item, especially among “weight-conscious” 9 to 5’ers because they’re quick, convenient, and boast low calories and sodium. They have no preparation required unless you count taking them out of their box, which is why people buy them.
Frozen vegetables are also now taking this quick-preparation route and are touted as easier to eat due to “steamer” technology plastic bags. In fact, two-thirds of our frozen vegetable aisle is now these plastic bags of veggies.
But just how safe are these plastic-contained microwave meals and vegetables anyhow? Even containers that claim to be BPA-free still have unknown health effects.
What is BPA?
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical produced in large quantities, mostly for the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.
BPA is often found in human blood because it can leach into food from the protective internal epoxy resin coatings of canned foods and from polycarbonate tableware, food storage containers, water bottles, and baby bottles. The degree to which BPA leaches from containers into food may depend more on the temperature of the liquid or bottle, than the age of the container.
It’s been discovered that BPA can disrupt our normal hormonal make-up, giving it the label of an “endocrine-disrupter.” Since this discovery, most plastic food containers are now BPA-free, such as water bottles and baby bottles.
However, it’s not well known what other chemical constituents are found in plastic containers, which may also have hormonal-disrupting effects for humans.
Thankfully, scientists are continually working on this problem and have recently released a new study giving us insight into the safety of plastic meal containers.
New Research Exposes Chemicals Leaching From Plastic Food Containers
Researchers from Texas and Boston through the past 5 years have been sampling over 500 plastic food container components (microwave meals, baby bottle parts, plastic steam bags) and exposing them to common environmental stresses:
• Moist Heat (like your dishwasher)
• UV Light (leaving a plastic bottle in the sun)
• Microwave (heat and radiation)
After various extractions and several years, the scientists found that subjecting plastic containers to these types of stress caused them to leach chemicals with known estrogenic-activity, and a potential danger to human hormonal make-up.
Chemicals that mimic or antagonize the actions of naturally occurring estrogens are defined as having estrogenic activity (EA), which is the most common form of endocrine disruptor activity.
What this means is that even containers that claim to be BPA-free are not EA-free, which is what we should be ultimately concerned about.
Although this study did not directly test how much of these EA chemicals a person will actually be exposed to through food products, given that each stressor may not be exactly the same, and a person may not absorb or metabolize these chemicals at the same rate, it is nevertheless very important to remember that numerous scientific data overwhelmingly show that very low-dose exposure to EAs alters normal cell function, and consistent exposure to EAs alters the reproductive health of various human populations.
Many scientists who study EA chemicals feel that is it not worth risking the health of ourselves and our future population by using plastic products with EA activity. As such, there is a push to remove all EA components from plastic containers and continue researching the safest mode of food containing.
In the meantime, your best bet is to avoid microwaving, dishwashing, and exposing plastic containers to direct, continuous sunlight.
Instead, use non-plastic containers and cook your food on the stove or in the oven. Bring leftovers to work for your lunch, but either eat them cold, or warm them in a non-plastic container.
Remember: eating food in its most natural state possible is the best option. Meals and food items that come in ready-to-cook convenient plastic containers are not the most ideal choice. Choose food that you have to do a little leg-work to prepare, but will help you enjoy the fruits of your labor without risking your health.
Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Yang CZ et al. Environmental Health Prospectives, March 2011
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