Microplastics have become a growing concern as they find their way into our food and water sources.
They are present in a variety of everyday food items, such as bottled water, seafood, and even fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic.
It’s estimated that each of us could be ingesting up to a credit card’s worth of plastic (about 5 grams) weekly, which can negatively impact our health.
It is important to learn how to avoid these tiny particles in your daily life, starting with the food you consume.
Let us briefly understand microplastics before proceeding towards how to avoid them in food.
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, usually smaller than 5 millimeters in size.
When plastic waste breaks down, it turns into these tiny particles, which then get ingested by various organisms living in the water, soil, or air.
For instance, when microplastics get into the water, they can be consumed by fish, which may later end up on your plate.
According to research, an average American individual may be eating, drinking, and breathing in more than 74,000 microplastic particles every year!
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., the recently retired director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) cautions us about the ill effects.
“Nanoplastics can easily cross all kinds of barriers, whether it’s the blood-brain barrier or the placental barrier, and get into our tissues,”
How Do Microplastics Get into Food?
Microplastics find their way into your food through various sources.
One common way is through the breakdown of larger plastic items into tiny particles over time. These particles can then enter the environment and make their way into the food chain.
Another source of microplastics in your food is food packaging. Plastic is often used to wrap your fruits, vegetables, and other perishables.
As these plastic materials wear down, small particles might get released into your food.
When consuming seafood, you might unknowingly ingest microplastics too.
Small aquatic creatures often mistake microplastics for food, and when they get eaten by larger marine animals, these plastics can eventually turn up in the seafood you consume.
In summary, microplastics can end up in your food from a variety of sources such as:
- Breakdown of larger plastic items
- Food packaging and storage materials
- Consumption of seafood contaminated with microplastics
Also read: How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Kitchen?
How to Avoid Microplastics in Food?
Let us look at the different ways to avoid microplastics in food
Drink Filtered Tap Water
Instead of bottled water, drink tap water that has been filtered to remove microplastics.
According to research, on average, plastic bottles have about double the microplastic level of tap water.
Investing in a good water filter can help you reduce plastic consumption and improve your water quality.
Avoid Processed Foods
Processed foods are more likely to contain microplastics, as they often come in plastic packaging.
According to research, Processed foods, like fast food, packaged meals, and sugary drinks, contain higher levels of phthalate microplastics that can accumulate in the body, especially in children.
This can have harmful effects on health, including an increased risk for chronic conditions like heart disease.
Experts suggest that choosing whole, unprocessed foods more often and limiting or avoiding highly processed foods can help reduce exposure to these harmful microplastics and improve overall health.
Eat Fresh and Local
Whenever possible, choose fresh fruits and vegetables over canned or prepackaged options.
Choosing fresh foods over packaged and processed foods can help reduce exposure to microplastics that may be present in the packaging materials.
Most of the cans are lined up with BPA, a substance quite harmful to health. It seeps into food over time.
Shopping at farmer’s markets or local stores will provide you with more plastic-free food choices. Fresh foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats, are typically sold there without packaging or in minimal packaging
Locally-sourced foods are less likely to be packaged in plastic and transported long distances, which can increase the chance of contamination.
Avoid Sea Salt
Switch to alternatives like Himalayan pink salt, as sea salt contains microplastics due to ocean pollution. On average, one kg of sea salt gives us 212 particles of microplastic.
Avoid Food in Plastic Wraps
Skip the foods you see in plastic wraps and packaging. For example, steer clear of “Ready-to-Eat” food sealed in plastic packaging. Choose foods wrapped in wax paper or cardboard paper instead.
A study found that microplastics are generated from opening plastic bags and containers. It doesn’t matter if you use your hands or scissors either: Microplastics were generated with all opening methods.
It is best to opt for fresh and homemade meals over prepackaged.
Instead of buying plastic products, purchase whole foods like ginger root or garlic and chop them up yourself.
Avoid Plastic Tea Bags
Choose loose-leaf tea or tea bags made from paper or biodegradable materials to reduce microplastic consumption.
According to the BBC report, research studies found that a single plastic teabag released about 11.6bn microplastic and 3.1bn smaller nano plastic particles into the hot water.
These particles are completely invisible to the naked eye. Opt for loose tea leaves or paper tea bags without a plastic seal. Few good tea makers make plastic-free tea bags that can be composted later on.
Use Eco-Friendly Bags When Shopping for Food
In 2015, over 730,000 tons of plastic bags were produced, and a staggering 87% of them ended up in landfills and oceans.
Plastic bags break down into smaller microplastics. These microplastics accumulate in the food chain and potentially cause health problems.
Therefore, we must reduce our use of plastic bags and find alternative solutions to reduce plastic waste.
When grocery shopping, use reusable fabric bags, canvas or jute, or paper bags instead. Certain markets let you fill up cardboard boxes with bulk items.
Raw meat and fish need to be kept separate for safety reasons, but ask the store fishmonger or butcher to wrap these foods in wax paper instead of plastic.
Choose Your Seafood Wisely
When consuming seafood, be mindful of the types you choose.
Shellfish are more likely to contain microplastics as they are filter feeders. A study found countries with high shellfish consumption ingested up to 11,000 microplastic particles a year.
Opt for fish that have lower microplastic levels, and avoid shellfish when possible.
Microplastics aren’t just consumed and excreted by the fish; the study found evidence of plastic fibers in the filets and liver of several fish species.
Limit your seafood consumption to reduce your overall microplastic intake.
Skip Heating Food in Plastic
Refrain from heating or microwaving food in plastic containers, as heat can release microplastics into the food.
According to Healthline, ‘Microwaving plastic can release harmful chemicals like BPA and phthalates into your foods and drinks. Therefore, you should avoid microwaving plastic, unless it’s labeled for this specific use.’
They go further by saying that BPA-free plastics aren’t necessarily safe as they can also leach chemicals into your food.
Remove the food from any plastic container before heating it. Use glass or ceramic containers instead.
Use Eco-Friendly Storage Containers
Switch to glass, silicone, or stainless steel containers to store your food, rather than plastic containers as they shed microplastics.
Eco-friendly storing has been found to reduce the migration of microplastics into food.
Here are a few helpful suggestions:
- glass storage containers,
- stainless steel boxes
- Bamboo bowls and pantry storage jars
- Rice husk storage containers
Keep the Kitchen Dust-Free
Regularly clean your kitchen to remove dust particles. This is because household dust contains microplastics that will eventually end up in the food stored in your kitchen/pantry.
Work with Your Community
Many people are unaware of the ill effects of plastic. Collaborate with your community to raise awareness about microplastics in food and implement waste reduction strategies.
Limiting the use of single-use plastics and plastic production through legislation can be an effective way to reduce plastic waste.
However, joining forces with community-level recycling groups can also make a significant difference.
Zero-waste groups can provide guidelines for recycling or composting all types of garbage, and they can lobby for local rules that restrict the use of throwaway items.
Shopping at markets that source goods locally can also help reduce the need for excessive packaging and shipping.
Supporting groups like Upstream, a nonprofit organization that works to create reusable takeout packaging for restaurants, can also make a difference.
Lastly, educating oneself about and supporting city, county, and state legislation that limits the use of single-use plastics can be a powerful way to create change.
Encourage local stores and restaurants to adopt eco-friendly practices and reduce plastic waste. Together, you can make a difference.
I would highly recommend watching this documentary on how to avoid microplastics in food:
Also read: Can You Wash and Reuse Aluminum Foil?
How are Microplastics detected in Food?
You might be wondering how the microplastics are in the food.
While it can be challenging for the average person to detect these tiny particles, there are a few methods used by researchers and scientists to identify microplastics in food samples.
One common approach is visual inspection.
You won’t be able to see microplastics with the naked eye, but researchers use powerful microscopes to examine food items closely and identify any plastic particles present in the samples.
Another method involves chemical analysis.
Professionals use techniques such as Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy to analyze the chemical composition of the food samples and detect the presence of plastics.
Researchers also employ different methods to isolate and identify microplastics in various types of food and drinks.
How Much Microplastics are we Ingesting?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are found in large quantities in the environment.
They are a result of the widespread production and pollution of plastics. Studies have shown that people in the United States consume a significant amount of microplastics each year, with an average person consuming over 50,000 particles from food alone.
The number increases even more for those who regularly consume plastic-based bottled water or inhale microplastics from non-food sources.
A study in 2019 found that stool samples from eight participants contained an average of 20 microplastics per 10 grams.
These findings suggest that people are exposed to and consume much more microplastics than previously thought.
Common Microplastics Found in Food
By being aware of common microplastics in food, you can take steps to minimize your exposure and make healthier choices.
Polyethylene and Polypropylene
Polyethylene and polypropylene are two common types of microplastics found in food.
These are used in a variety of food packaging materials, such as plastic bags and containers. You might be unknowingly ingesting these tiny particles when you eat food stored in such packaging.
To minimize exposure, try using glass containers or reusable cloth bags for food storage.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is a chemical commonly found in plastic bottles, food storage containers, and the lining of some canned goods.
When you consume food or drinks from these containers, BPA can seep into your food. To avoid BPA exposure, choose BPA-free products, use stainless steel or glass bottles, and avoid heating food in plastic containers.
Dioxins are toxic chemicals produced during industrial processes and released into the environment.
They can accumulate in the food chain, especially in fatty foods like dairy, meat, and fish.
To limit your dioxin exposure, try eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products.
Phthalates are used as plasticizers in many products, including food packaging and personal care products.
They can leach into your food, especially when heated.
To reduce phthalate exposure, avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, opt for glass or ceramic containers, and choose personal care products that are phthalate-free.
The Dangers of Microplastics
Microplastics pose a potential threat to your health. Not only do they find their way into the food you eat and the water you drink, but they can also negatively impact your body.
Let us explore the dangers of microplastics.
Increasing Risk of Chronic Diseases
According to research, long-term exposure to endocrine-disrupting microplastics could contribute to these health issues.
Certain studies suggest that exposure to microplastics in food can be just as detrimental to a person’s health as having an unbalanced diet.
This may increase their risk of developing chronic conditions.
Microplastics can disrupt your hormonal balance. They contain substances known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with your body’s natural hormonal signals.
Studies have revealed that exposure to BPA can contribute to infertility in both males and females, as well as the development of polycystic ovary syndrome.
This is because BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone for their receptors, leading to a reduction in the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.
As a result, you may experience changes in reproductive health, metabolism, or other essential body functions.
Your immune system helps protect you from illnesses and infections. However, microplastics might negatively affect your immunity.
A review conducted in 2020 discovered that exposure to microplastics can cause increased inflammation, which can result in poor gut health and weakened immunity.
Since 70-80% of the body’s immune cells are located in the gut, any condition that affects gut health can also interfere with immune health.
Exposure to microplastics in the gut regularly can be toxic to immune cells, causing dysbiosis, which is a disturbance to the gut microbiota and leads to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria.
Dysbiosis has been linked to developing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, the surface of microplastics can harbor harmful bacteria that can further compromise immune health.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let us proceed toward some frequently asked questions:
How to Reduce Microplastics in Water?
You can take a few simple steps to minimize your exposure to microplastics in drinking water:
- Use a water filter designed to remove microplastics.
- Drink tap water if it’s safe in your area.
- Opt for reusable glass or metal bottles instead of single-use plastic ones
What are the Methods to Remove Microplastics From the Body?
While research is still unfolding, here are some general tips to remove microplastics from your body:
- Maintain a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and fibers to support your body’s natural detoxification process.
- Stay hydrated to help flush out toxins.
- Exercise regularly to promote healthy circulation and detoxify through sweating.
What are the Best Practices to Avoid Plastics in Food?
Here’s what you can do to minimize your exposure to microplastics in food:
- Choose fresh, unpackaged foods when possible.
- Use glass, silicone, or stainless steel containers for storing and preparing food.
- Avoid heating food in plastic containers or using plastic utensils for hot foods.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
To avoid microplastics in your food, it’s important to make a few changes to your daily habits.
Firstly, limit your consumption of highly processed foods since they’re associated with higher levels of microplastics. Instead, focus on eating more whole and natural foods.
Another effective approach is to choose eco-friendly packaging for your food items, which reduces exposure to microplastics during storage and shipping.
Don’t forget to use glass or stainless steel containers for your water, as they significantly decrease the chances of ingesting microplastics from plastic bottles.
Additionally, avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, as heated plastics can leach chemicals into your food. Opt for using a pan in the oven or on the stove instead.
In conclusion, taking these precautions will not only help you avoid microplastics in your food but also contribute to a healthier lifestyle.
Stay healthy and make the conscious decision to protect both your well-being and our environment. Cheers!
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