Worldwide, 322 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year, 60% of which supplied the food and beverage industry for food packaging. These plastics contain an array of chemicals including stabilizers, lubricants, fillers and plasticizers. Exposure to certain environmental conditions, such as heat, causes plastic to break into smaller fragments called microplastics, which can migrate into food.

Single-use water bottles, take-out containers, cans, and storage packaging are examples of common plastic food packaging that contains microplastics. Heating food in plastic packaging, long storage times, and the type of plastic packaging a person uses all affect the amount of microplastics and harmful chemicals that migrate into food.

Common microplastics in food

The microplastic chemicals in food are a mix of those that manufacturers add deliberately, like fillers and stabilizers, and those that accumulate as by-products, like residues and impurities. Common microplastics found in food include:

– Bisphenol A (BPA): Manufacturers use this plasticizer to make polyvinyl chloride, the “parent” plastic of many products.
– dioxin: it is a by-product of herbicides and paper bleaching, which contaminates the environment.
– phthalates: They make plastics more flexible, transparent and durable and are present in many types of food packaging.
– Polyethylene and Polypropylene: They make packaging lightweight and durable and are the most common trusted source plastics in food and the environment.
Microplastics found in smaller amounts 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 properties, such as transparency, flexibility, and durability. However, experts have classified many of these chemicals as toxic and harmful to human health.

Below are some of the dangers of microplastics.

Disrupting hormones

Scientists consider at least 15 of the chemicals used by manufacturers to make plastic packaging to be endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are similar in structure to certain hormones found in the body, such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin, and mimic and disrupt their natural functions, causing adverse health effects and increasing risk of chronic diseases. In particular, research has shown that exposure to BPA plays a role in infertility in both men and women, as well as the development of polycystic ovary syndrome. BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone for their receptors, reducing the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.

Increased risk of chronic diseases

Research continues to show that long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting microplastics increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Experts link higher blood levels of dioxins, phthalates and BP to pre-disease states of inflammation, impaired fasting blood sugar, insulin resistance and obesity, which dramatically increases the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. Some research suggests that exposure to these microplastics in food is just as detrimental to a person’s health and increases the risk of chronic disease to the same degree as diet imbalance.

Impaired immune health

According to a 2020 study, increased inflammation induced by exposure to microplastics leads to poor gut health and, by extension, weakened immunity.
The intestine plays an important role in immunity, since 70 to 80% of the body’s immune cells are found there. This means that any condition that affects gut health also interferes with immune health. Persistent exposure to microplastics in the gut is toxic to immune cells, causing dysbiosis, disruption of gut microbiota, and leading to overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. Research links dysbiosis to the development of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, the surface of microplastics can harbor harmful bacteria that further compromise immune health.

How much exposure are we getting?

Microplastics are abundant in the environment, a result scientists attribute to the massive global production of plastics and widespread pollution. Research suggests that the average person in the United States can consume more than 50,000 microplastic particles per year from eating alone. This figure rises to an estimated 90,000 among those who regularly consume plastic-based bottled water, and 120,000 when considering the inhalation of microplastics from non-food sources.

The authors of a 2019 study identified an average of 20 microplastics per 10 grams of stool samples from eight participants. These results suggest that the amount of microplastics people come into contact with and consume is much greater important than what the experts had expected.

How to minimize exposure

If it is not possible to eliminate your exposure to microplastics, you can try to reduce the amount of microplastics you come into contact with and consume.

Here are a few tips :

1. Limit ultra-processed foods

Research links the consumption of ultra-processed foods: such as hamburgers, ready-to-eat meals, French fries, ice cream, sodas and canned foods, to higher levels of phthalate microplastics in the body. This effect is more pronounced in children. Experts further speculate that the low nutritional quality of ultra-processed foods, combined with the harmful effects of microplastics present in these foods, could be responsible for the development of chronic diseases, including heart disease.

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

2. Choose eco-friendly packaging

Using eco-friendly packaging reduces exposure to microplastics and their migration into 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 storage jars
– rice husk storage bowls and containers

3. Use glass or stainless steel water bottles

Exposure to microplastics is almost 2-3 times higher in people who use plastic water bottles for hydration than in those who use alternative water bottles. This may be because the heat and longer storage times that may be common with bottled water increase the migration of microplastics from the packaging into food and water.

The solution: Replace single-use or BPA-containing water bottles with glass or stainless steel bottles to reduce exposure to microplastics.

* criptom strives to transmit health knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE, the information given can not replace the opinion of a health professional.