Friday, February 17, 2012

Plastics and Food (Keep 'Em Separated)

Many of us have known for a while that we should avoid plastic food and drink containers that contain BPA. However, a research article published last year strongly suggests that contact between food and any type of plastic should be avoided as much as possible.

The authors of the study, published in the journal "Environmental Health Perspectives," tested 455 plastic products designed to come into contact with food, such as baby bottles, food wrap, deli containers and plastic bags. They found that almost all of the products leached chemicals having estrogenic activity, meaning these chemicals mimic or interfere with the actions of estrogen in our bodies. This was true even of products advertised as being BPA-free.  These estrogen-mimicking chemicals, or endocrine disruptors, interfere with the functioning of our hormone systems and have been linked to a host of adverse health effects, including cancer, as well as developmental, reproductive and neurological disorders.

Furthermore, the FDA has approved more than 3,000 chemicals and other substances for use in food packaging. These are considered "indirect food additives" because they migrate from the packaging into food. The approved chemicals include known or suspected reproductive toxins or carcinogens, including BPA, formaldehyde, some phthalates, styrene (found in all styrofoam food trays and egg cartons) and various derivatives of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (found in some cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles and some cooking oil bottles).

I  am in the process of gradually getting rid of plastic food containers in my kitchen. My goal is to replace the plastic in my kitchen with glass, stainless steel or ceramic. I am also working on reducing the amount of food packaged in plastic I bring home from the grocery store each week. Eliminating all plastic food packaging would be difficult for most of us. (But, for inspiration check out these tips on "zero waste" grocery shopping from a fascinating blog on "zero waste" living. Wow.)

Here are some of the steps I have taken and some resources that have been helpful:

  • A great place to start is this list of tips, the Plastic-Free Living Guide, from the blog My Plastic-Free Life.
  • No more bottled water; there are so many reasons to avoid bottled water. I purchased a Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottle for each member of my family. Since I purchased them, they have started a selling a bottle called the Reflect, which comes with a stainless steel and bamboo cap. No plastic at all.
  • If you are bottle-feeding a baby, use glass bottles. As noted in this article, some plastic baby bottles marketed as BPA-free use plastics made from a Bisphenol S, a substitute that itself shows estrogenic activity.
  • One of the first things I wanted to get rid of were the plastic containers I used to freeze the soups and stews I like to cook. I found a great site, Life Without Plastic, that sells airtight stainless steel containers that work beautifully in the freezer. They are pricey. As I noted above, I am approaching this as a process, not something I have to do all at once, and have acquired a few containers over time.
  • To store small amounts of leftovers or cut up fruits or vegetables, I generally just place the food in a bowl and invert a small plate or saucer on top. When I need an airtight seal, I place one of these silicone suction lids on a bowl. For the future, I have my eye on these Anchor Hocking glass storage dishes with glass lids and these Weck canning jars.
  • I don't rewrap or transfer most of my packaged food into other containers, but I do rewrap cheese when I get home from the store. The plasticizers in some plastic wraps are fat-soluble and easily migrate into high-fat foods such as cheese and meats. (Some sources recommend slicing off a thin layer of the cheese where it comes into contact with the plastic). I rewrap cheese in unbleached parchment paper and then place it in another container. You can also try asking at the cheese counter for them to slice you a piece of cheese and wrap it in paper.
  • My daughter loves using a straw to drink smoothies. I purchased these gorgeous handmade glass straws so that we wouldn't be drinking from plastic. (I know, I know, I was skeptical, too; but they really seem to be unbreakable). is another great resource for reusable, waste-free products.
  • Finally, for years I had been boiling water for tea in an electric kettle that was mostly plastic. I didn't even think about what I was doing until I was reading the excellent book Anticancer: A New Way of Life and the author noted that electric tea kettles are made of PVC and leach BPA. Ack. So out went the electric kettle and I dug out my old stainless steel kettle which I fortunately had kept.
Do you have any tips for eliminating plastic in the kitchen? If so, please share.

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