Are Plastics Safe?

It’s an emblem of the modern culture. Think that Graduate line (“I want to say one word to you. Just one word….”), the commercial a couple decades ago in which the girl drops a 2-liter soda bottle, Tupperware parties, Ziploc bags, etc. Plastics were once cutting edge, and these days they’re absolutely everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, in fact, that a recent book (The World Without Us) hypothesizes a post-human world with an evolutionary turn toward plastic ingestion. There’s an interesting nutritional concept….

Some weeks ago we tackled the question of safe cookware. While we took on the likes of aluminum, stainless, and ceramic, we knew there was a whole other world of cookware and food storage left to explore. So, today we tackle the question of plastics. What role can/should they play in a Primal kitchen? What price do we pay for their convenience? Is there such a thing as a safe plastic for food prep and storage? What are the ones to avoid at all costs? And what’s the real harm in it anyway?

Take a look around the typical American kitchen. Besides Tupperware, you’ll likely find “disposable” pieces (Gladware, etc.) – some of which you can purportedly bake in, an assortment of leftover cottage cheese or Cool Whip (pardon us as we shudder) containers, Saran Wrap, lunch baggies, water bottles, baby bottles, countertop water jugs, lined food cans, bagged frozen veggies, etc. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Though we’re all aware of the convenience gained with plastic containers, what problems have we inherited with this expediency? (We’ll put aside issues related to manufacturing and disposal and focus solely on storage and preparation.) What is the impact of plastic on the individual consumer who is just trying to pack her lunch or cook dinner each day? Plastics, as used for food preparation and storage, have been linked to a sobering list of health conditions: hormonal imbalance, heart disease, impaired brain development, altered development of sexual organs, and various cancers. Yikes is right, but (as is usually the case) there’s more to the story.

The issue with plastic is leaching, the release of the plastic’s chemicals into food or drink and our ingestion of these chemicals over time. (Many of these chemicals can build up in the body.) Although all plastics break down and leach at some point, certain plastics are more structurally stable than others. And what you do with a plastic (e.g. heating) likewise makes a big difference. Finally, what kind of food or drink you put in it can actually be a factor as well. As always, let’s break it down….

Plastics of different types are assigned corresponding resin numbers. (If you have to separate plastics for community recycling, you’ve likely become well acquainted with the system….) The types, 1-7, look something like this.

  • #1 polyethylene terephthalate – aka PET/PETE – soda bottles, mouthwash bottles, bottled water, etc.
  • #2 high density polyethylene – aka HDPE – milk jugs, household cleaner and detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, etc.
  • #3 polyvinyl chloride – aka V/PVC – meat packaging, some household cleaner bottles, rigid plastic containers, household pipes, etc.
  • #4 low density polyethylene – aka LDPE – newspaper bags, grocery bags, sandwich bags, cling wraps, frozen food bags, etc.
  • #5 polypropylene  – aka PP – yogurt/sour cream tubs, ketchup bottles, medicine bottles, etc.
  • #6 polystyrene – aka PS – coffee cups, packing peanuts, to-go containers, etc.
  • #7 “other” (Category assigned for mixed plastics or plastics introduced after 1987. The category includes polycarbonate, plant-based polylactide and other new hard plastics.) – baby bottles, water cooler bottles, rigid containers for food storage, lining for canned food, etc.

So, who are the good guys in this picture? Who are the villains? Which of them tend to leach the most? Although you’ll find criticism/skepticism about every category in some corners, most experts believe that better bets include #2 (HDPE), #4 (LDPE) and #5 (polypropylene) plastics because they appear to be more stable and less prone to leaching when used properly.

Of high concern are PVC (#3), polystyrene (#6) and the polycarbonate plastics (subcategory of #7). PVC contains phthalates, known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, that present a particular risk to children. As for polystyrene, studies have linked this plastic to cancer, neurological damage and reproductive issues (PDF). And we’ve all likely heard the debate about BPA, a component of polycarbonate plastics. Although industry has fought the link tooth and nail, it’s becoming clear that BPA can seriously impact hormonal balance and reproductive function. (1, 2, 3)

Finally, some research suggests that a common plastic for water bottles, PET plastics, leach estrogenic compounds. These compounds, xenoestrogens, can disrupt hormonal balance in both men and women, although the single use of these plastics may lessen the overall leaching impact on consumers.

So, what can you do to prevent leaching? First off, there’s your own use of plastic. Use plastic containers only in accordance with their originally intended use (e.g. Don’t reheat a microwave dinner container or wash a single use water bottle and use it over and over – especially after continual washing in a hot dishwasher.) Second, avoid heating any plastic whenever possible or storing hot food/drink in plastic containers. In much of the “leaching” research, plastics are heated to high temperatures for long stretches of time, but even brief heating can be enough to allow chemical shedding of sorts. Remove plastic packaging and use a good old glass bowl or stove top pot for heating and a regular mug instead of a foam cup for your morning coffee. (And use a plain paper towel, preferably unbleached, to cover food in the microwave rather than plastic wrap.) The same goes for storage. (A liquid or moist food item has the potential to absorb more from its container than loose “dry” items.) Acidic food reacts more with the materials it comes in contact with. Keep your tomatoes and juices preferably in glass. Finally, look into alternatives to plastic bags like wax paper sandwich bags or stainless steel Bento boxes. (Just be sure to wrap those acidic foods in wax paper before storing them in stainless steel or aluminum.)

But what about the plastic you don’t choose and don’t have as much control over? We mean the packaging that stores and food manufacturers choose for us. By far the best choice is to make as much of your own food as possible. Mind you, you don’t have to grow it yourself, but simply make as many foods from the raw ingredients as possible. Squeeze your own juice rather than buy it in a plastic bottle. Buy fresh produce instead of using pre-cut/frozen vegetables and fruits. Limit use of canned and plastic-bottled items. As for the foods you can’t or don’t have time to make on your own, look for alternative packing where it’s available. Some frozen produce companies now package their products in freezer paper bags instead of plastic. Get your meat from the counter, where butcher paper instead of plastic wrap is used. Finally, when there are no alternatives, you can consider shaving or cutting off the very top layers of items that come into contact with less desirable plastics. While this might not work so well for something like pork chops, it can be a reasonable option with ground meats.

Although it’s hard to imagine a modern grocery store without plastic containers, at one time the human race existed without plastics. And you don’t have to go back to the age of Grok. For some of us, it’s simply a trip down memory lane. While we aren’t suggesting that plastic has no place in modern life, it’s safe to say it probably should play a limited role in the Primal kitchen.

Tell us what you think. Have alternative shopping and storage ideas to share? Further ideas for debate and discussion? Thanks for reading.

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