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What do we know about microplastics in food?

Globally, 322 millionTrusted Source metric tons of plastics were produced in 2016, of which 60%Trusted Source supplied the food and beverage industry for food packaging. These plastics contain an array of chemicals, including stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, and plasticizers.

Exposure to some environmental conditions, such as heat, causes plastic to break into smaller fragments called microplastics, which can migrate into food.

Single-use water bottles, to-go containers, food cans, and storage wraps are examples of common plastic-based food packaging that contains microplastics.

Heating food in plastic packaging, long storage times, and the type of plastic packaging a person uses all affectTrusted Source the amount of the microplastics and their harmful chemicals that migrates into food.

Common microplastics in food

The microplastic chemicals present in food are a mixtureTrusted Source of those that manufacturers deliberately add, such as fillers and stabilizers, and those that accumulate as byproducts, such as residues and impurities.

Some common microplastics present in food include:

  • bisphenol A (BPA): Manufacturers useTrusted Source this plasticizer to make polyvinyl chloride, the “parent” plastic of many products.
  • dioxin: This is a byproductTrusted Source of herbicides and paper bleaching, which contaminate the environment.
  • phthalatesTrusted Source: These make plastics more flexible, transparent, and durable and are present in many types of food packaging.
  • polyethylene and polypropylene: These make packaging lightweight and durable and are the most commonTrusted Source plastics present in food and the environment.

Microplastics found in smaller quantities in food include BPA and BPF, mono-(3-carboxypropyl), mono-(carboxyisononyl), and mono-(carboxyisoctyl).

The dangers of microplastics

Microplastics are the fragments of stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, plasticizers, and other chemicals that manufacturers use to give plastics their desirable propertiesTrusted Source, such as transparency, flexibility, and durability.

However, experts have classified many of these chemicals as toxic and harmful to human health.

Below, we discuss some of the dangers of microplastics in greater detail.

Disrupting hormones

Scientists consider at least 15Trusted Source of the chemicals manufacturers use to make plastic packaging to be endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine disruptors are structurally similarTrusted Source to some hormones in the body — such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin — and mimic and disrupt their natural functions, leading to adverse health effects and increasing a person’s risk of chronic conditions.

In particular, research has shown that exposure to BPA plays a role in infertilityTrusted Source in males and females alike, as well as in the development of polycystic ovary syndromeTrusted Source.

BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone for their receptors, reducing the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.

Increasing risk of chronic disease

Research continues to demonstrate that long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting microplastics increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetesTrusted Source and heart disease.

Experts associate higher blood levels of dioxins, phthalates, and BPs with pre-disease states of inflammationTrusted Source, impaired fasting glucose, insulin resistance, and obesity, significantly elevating the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

Some researchTrusted Source suggests that exposure to these microplastics in food causes as much harm to a person’s health and raises their risk of chronic conditions to the same degree as following an unbalanced diet.

Impairing immune health

A 2020 reviewTrusted Source found that the increased inflammation induced by exposure to microplastics leads to poor gut health and, by extension, weakened immunity.

The gut plays an important roleTrusted Source in immunity, with 70–80%Trusted Source of the body’s immune cells being in the gut. This means that any condition that affects gut health interferes with immune health as well.

Persistent exposure to microplastics in the gut is toxicTrusted Source to immune cells, causing dysbiosis — a disruption to the gut microbiota — and leading to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria.

ResearchTrusted Source associates dysbiosis with the development of such conditions as Parkinson’s disease.

Moreover, the surface of microplastics may harbor harmful bacteria that further compromise immune health.

How to minimize exposure

While eliminating your exposure to microplastics may not be possible, you can try to reduce the amount of microplastics you come into contact with and consume.

Here are some tips:

1. Limit highly processed foods
Research associates consumption of highly processed foods — such as hamburgers, ready-to-eat convenience meals, French fries, ice cream, soda, and canned foods — with higher levels of phthalate microplastics in the body. This effect is more pronounced in children.

Experts further speculate that the low nutritional quality of highly processed foods, combined with the harmful effects of the microplastics present in those foods, may be responsible for the development of chronic conditions, including heart disease.

The solution: Choose whole foods and minimally processed foods more often and limit or eliminate highly processed foods from your diet. This will help lower levels of endocrine-disrupting microplastics in the body.

2. Choose eco-friendly packaging
Using eco-friendly packaging reducesTrusted Source the exposure to and migration of microplastics in the food supply.

The solution: Opt for the following:

  • glass storage containers, portable bowls, and water bottles
  • stainless steel bento boxes and reusable water containers
  • bamboo lunch boxes, bowls, utensils, and pantry storage jars
  • rice husk bowls and storage containers

3. Use glass or stainless steel water bottles
Exposure to microplastics is almost 2–3Trusted Source times higher in individuals who rely on their fluid intake from plastic water bottles than in those who use alternative water bottles.

This may be due to the fact that heat and longer storage times that may be common with bottled water increaseTrusted Source the migration of microplastics from packaging into the food and water.

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