Plastics, so convenient, so ubiquitous, so problematic. While it's probably impossible to eliminate plastics from your life entirely, you can and should try to keep them out of your food. Harmful plastic chemicals such as BPA and phthalates are in our bodies, and researchers believe they most commonly enter our bodies through ingestion via our mouths. But it's not enough to avoid BPA or other specific plastic chemicals. The absence of an effective toxic chemical policy framework means that toxic plastic chemicals (such as BPA) are often replaced with another untested chemical (BPS), which all too often is later found to be just as problematic (the so-called "toxic treadmill"). The issue is the undisclosed additives. As plastic-free living guru Beth Terry explained in an interview:
The issue is, it is impossible to know if any plastic is safe. In addition to the problems we know about, plastics can contain thousands of possible additives to affect the hardness, or softness, or slippery-ness, and manufacturers don’t disclose what their recipes are. The number on the container tells you what type of plastic it is, but it doesn’t tell you what else has been added to the plastic. If you don’t know what’s in it, you can’t tell what will leach out of it. The additives are not bound to the polymer, and when the plastic is subject to stress (light, heat) it can leach. (source)As a 2011 study famously demonstrated, almost all commercially available plastics leach endocrine disruptors when subjected to common-use stresses, such as microwaving or the humid heat of the dishwasher. Recent studies have connected plastic chemicals to autistic behaviors, reduced sperm count, irregular heartbeats, and higher blood pressure. In fact, researchers recently concluded that "there is a greater than 99 percent chance that endocrine-disrupting chemicals [including BPA and phthalates, found in plastics] are contributing" to neurological effects (such as attention problems), obesity and diabetes, as well as infertility and other male reproductive disorders.
When trying to keep plastic out of your diet, keep in mind the following:
- Children are more susceptible to health problems caused by plastic chemicals due to the fact that they consume a greater amount of food relative to their body weight and because of their rapid pace of development. The safety of children's dishware and foods should be top priorities. Because fetuses are also particularly vulnerable, pregnant women too should take particular care to avoid eating plastic.
- Fat, salt, acid, heat, UV light all promote the leaching of plastic chemicals into food. This is why if you leave your plastic water bottle in your car on a hot day, your water tastes "plasticky." It is also why canned foods that are acidic (pasta sauce), fatty (coconut milk) or salty (soup) contain higher levels of BPA. Naturally, plastic chemicals more readily migrate into liquid foods as well. This is why I pay special attention to how high fat, salty, acidic, and liquid food products are packaged.
- Styrofoam, PVC/ vinyl, PFCs (such as Teflon), and hard clear plastics (originally made with BPA and now the no-better BPS) are especially to be avoided. While all plastics are suspect due to undisclosed ingredients, these plastics are widely accepted to be harmful to human health.
- Never microwave or otherwise heat food in a plastic container. If you need to cover food in the microwave, use a paper towel not plastic wrap, since plastic wrap could result in condensation containing phthalates to drip onto your food.
- Ditch the nonstick bakeware. I personally found this switch remarkably easy. I simply swapped out my nonstick bakeware for stainless steel or glass bakeware. I lightly grease or use a Silpat when necessary. Seasoned cast iron or stoneware are also safer choices for baking.
- Ditch the nonstick cookware. This was a bit more challenging. But I did find that many foods can be cooked up just fine in stainless steel. For eggy dishes, tofu, and other very sticky foods, we use preseasoned cast iron or enameled cast iron.
- If you must use a nonstick pan, opt for a nonstick skillet with a ceramic-based coating that is free of PFCs such as PTFE and PFOA. We have a Cuisinart GreenGourmet skillet, recommended as a safe option in Safe Mama's Green Guide, which we sometimes use for eggs.
- Avoid food processors. I know of no food processor that does not have a hard clear plastic bowl made of questionable undisclosed materials. Instead of a food processor, use a blender with a glass jar or a stainless steel immersion blender. Immersion blenders can be used directly in your pot or bowl, or with a glass quart jar or a stainless steel malt cup (the plastic beaker that usually comes with immersion blenders is typically hard clear plastic). If you do use a food processor or a blender with a hard clear plastic jar, avoid processing hot liquids or foods and take the food out of the processor as quickly as possible after processing.
- Use wood or (formaldehyde-free) bamboo cutting boards. Less plastic in your food and better for your knives too. We do have one plastic cutting board for cutting raw meat (which we very rarely do anyway), because I want to be able to run my cutting board through the dishwasher after cutting raw meat on it, since I know that I am too lazy to properly disinfect a wood cutting board. Replace plastic cutting boards when worn or deeply grooved from cutting.
- Use wooden and stainless steel cooking utensils rather than plastic ones whenever possible.
- Choose glass or stainless steel baby bottles for infants. Choose stainless steel sippy cups for young children. Note that many stainless steel baby bottles can later be converted to sippy cups, making them a very good investment.
- Do not drink hot beverages from styrofoam or other disposable plastic cups. Even paper cups are lined with plastic. Use a reusable ceramic or insulated stainless steel to-go mug for hot beverages such as coffee.
- Use stainless steel dishware instead of plastic for kids. Stainless steel is durable, unbreakable, and dishwasher-safe: perfect for kids! We love love love our stainless steel cups, bowls, and plates by Sanctus Mundo. An inexpensive option for stainless steel bowls is to purchase small prep or mixing bowls from a local or online restaurant supplier. You might also consider Corelle or tempered glass dishware for kids if you have a linoleum, cork or carpeted kitchen floor (I've broken plenty of tempered glass on my stone tile floor).
- Hand wash plastic dishes. Plastics and the dishwasher are a bad mix. If you hate hand washing dishes as much as I do, use as little plastic dishware as possible. If you do run plastic dishes through the dishwasher, put them on the top rack and turn off the dry cycle.
- Choose glass or stainless steel containers for food storage whenever possible, particularly for high-fat, hot, or acidic foods. We love using Pyrex for storing most foods in the fridge or freezer because it is see-through, dishwasher-safe, and can be heated in the microwave or oven. An especially frugal choice is to simply reuse empty glass jars from pasta sauces, mayonnaise, jams, etc.
- Drink filtered tap water from reusable water bottles made of stainless steel or glass, not plastic. Whatever you do, please don't drink bottled water, which may contain undisclosed plastic chemicals.
- Use dishwasher-safe stainless steel containers for kids' lunches (Lunchbots are my favorite). I have found these to be the very easiest for daily use and cleaning. Adults can usually be trusted to take lunch in Pyrex or ceramic, which makes for easy reheating in the microwave.
- Bring your own glass or stainless steel food containers for takeout, especially if your favorite restaurant uses styrofoam.
- Recycle or repurpose (for non-food purposes) plastic food containers that are visibly worn or several years old. Don't reuse single-use plastics for food storage.
- Enjoy fresh, seasonal produce by shopping at the farmers market. Not only will you encounter little to no packaging, but there are no tiny annoying plastic produce stickers!
- Don't eat microwave popcorn, which comes in bags lined with toxic PFCs. Make your own popcorn on the stovetop or with an air popper, or even in the microwave with a plain paper bag.
- Avoid fast food, Chinese and pizza take out containers. To go containers for greasy foods are usually coated with the nonstick chemicals PFOAs.
- Avoid canned foods in general, since metal food cans are always lined with plastic. Seek out fresh, frozen, or dried fruits and veggies rather than canned. Skip the canned meals and soups (Tetra Paks lined with PET are a better alternative), and make broths from boullion. Make your own beans from scratch in bulk, and freeze in 2-cup Pyrex containers. Defrost a container and you have a "can" of beans. I do this regularly with garbanzo beans so that I can make hummus from dried beans in 5 minutes flat.
- Buy tomato products (tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, etc.) in glass jars. Canned tomatoes were my last canned food holdout, but when I found a tomato sauce that worked for my pizza, I was home free. Tomato is acidic and will accelerate leaching from the plastic lining of metal cans into your food.
- When purchasing beverages such as soda or beer, choose glass bottles instead of aluminum cans. The lining of aluminum cans contains BPA.
- Purchase oil in glass bottles. Remember, plastic chemicals tend to be lipophilic or fat-loving and leach more readily into fat.
- Find a local milk supplier that uses reusable glass bottles.
- Make your own yogurt in glass jars. For the ultimate plastic-free yogurt, start with milk purchased in reusable glass bottles.
- Don't purchase meat on styrofoam trays. Styrofoam is one of the most toxic plastics. I purchase most of my meat in shrink-wrapped plastic (makes for easier defrosting too!).
- Better yet, bring your own glass or stainless steel food containers to the grocery store and ask the butcher or deli counter worker to place your meats and cheeses directly in your own container to avoid plastic packaging (note that butcher paper is usually lined with plastic too).
- Breastfeed if possible. No packaging or reheating necessary! If you use formula, steer clear of liquid ready-made formula packaged in metal cans (which are lined with plastic, albeit BPA-free ones now). Use powdered mixes instead.
- Eat lower on the food chain: more plants, fewer animal products. Especially avoid meat and dairy high in fat. Plastic chemicals such as phthalates make their way into the food chain through animal feed or during processing and become concentrated in the fat of animals. Milk and milk products (even those packaged in glass!) are a significant source of phthalates, probably because most milking machines use PVC tubing.
- Give babies and toddlers toys, especially teethers, made of natural non-toxic materials, such as untreated wood, cotton, and wool.
- Avoid touching receipts, which often have large amounts of unbound BPA or (more recently) BPS. If you aren’t going to return the items or if you can return the items by credit card, don’t take the receipt. Wash hands after handling receipts or cash, and especially before handling food. If you handle receipts and cash often (as cashiers do), wear gloves!
- Wash your hands before eating and dust often. Plastics "shed" chemicals into your household dust over time. Dusting is especially important if you have young children who mouth their hands and objects often.
- Please support meaningful chemical reform. Wouldn't it be lovely if you didn't need to worry about keeping toxic chemicals out of your food packaging, food containers, and dishware? Subscribe to the Safer Chemicals email updates so you can easily encourage your representatives to reform our outdated and ineffective toxic chemical policies and urge businesses to immediately eliminate toxic products.
Last but not least
- Cooking without Teflon
- The Perfect Child's Cup
- Eat Less Plastic (the original post)
- Goodbye, Teflon. Hello, Le Creuset.
- 10 Reasons I Love Pyrex
- How to Eat Less Meat
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