Can plastic really give you cancer or dementia? What you need to know about food contaminants and how to avoid them.
You’re young, you’re healthy - you’re probably not too concerned about how that Nalgene you’ve been lugging around will affect your health 70 years from now. But haven’t you ever been a little freaked out by the plastic wrap that melts to your food in the microwave? Here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about food contaminants and their effects on your long-term health.
Cooking in aluminum pots will give you Alzheimer’s Disease (AD): This myth has been around since research first linked aluminum and AD in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, numerous studies have connected high levels of aluminum in the brain to a deceivingly scary number of aluminum-containing household items, including antiperspirants, antacids, and aluminum cookware. New research is continuously being published on the subject, but to date, experts (including position statements of the Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Society of the UK) will tell you to fear not! Your deodorant and “vintage” aluminum pans won’t cause your cognitive demise.
Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth, found naturally in air, water, food, and soil, and not-so-naturally in a whole slew of consumer products including cosmetics, food additives, pharmaceuticals, antiperspirants, foil, pots and pans, etc. It enters the body on a daily basis, through inhalation (particles in air), ingestion (food and water), and contact with skin (touching aluminum products). The amount you breathe and drink is pretty much microscopic, as is the amount that enters the body through natural foods, aluminum containers, or cooking utensils.
Aluminum has low bioavailability in the body, meaning only tiny amounts are actually absorbed through your small intestine. Most is excreted intact or later in your pee. Which means, unless you have kidney disease (where the body cannot filter aluminum and it builds up in the bloodstream), or you live near an aluminum mine, your daily activities should not be putting you at risk for any type of aluminum toxicity. If you’re looking to cut it out of your life anyway, you could try using steel or glass cookware instead of aluminum.
Using plastic in the microwave will give you cancer: This one is pretty straightforward. Those Tupperware containers have microwave safe labels for a reason! When plastic wraps or containers are used in the microwave, chemicals called plasticizers can leach from the plastic into your food. Fatty foods, (i.e. leftover pizza, lasagna, etc) are even more vulnerable to this leaky plastic due to their chemical makeup. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all plastics to be tested and monitored, ensuring that the quantity of plasticizer released is less than the amount shown to harm lab rats over a lifetime of use.
So essentially, if you don’t see the label, don’t use it! According to Harvard School of Public Health, you should avoid saving takeout containers for future reheating. Same goes for any water bottles or plastic tubs that formerly held condiments, yogurt, butter, etc. Containers should be vented and plastic wrap should never come into contact with food. If you want to avoid these rules altogether, Saran wrap can be substituted with wax paper, parchment paper, or regular old paper towels. Instead of using plastic tubs to reheat your lunch, use glass or ceramic containers (labeled microwave safe!) instead.
I need to buy a Sigg to replace my old Nalgene: The old Nalgene bottles were made with a type of plastic called polycarbonate, which is made from the now notorious industrial chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), also found in baby bottles (scary!), disposable plastic water bottles, and epoxy linings of aluminum cans. BPA molecules leach out of polycarbonate water bottles and containers over time, particularly in the presence of repeated washings, high temperatures, and acidic foods. So it’s really not such a brilliant idea to drink water from the bottle that’s been sitting in the trunk of your car since Memorial Day.
The effects of BPA on human health have been widely disputed over the past 70 years. In a 2010 statement on plastics and health risks from the Annual Review of Public Health, BPA was classified as a chemical “no longer regarded simply as a long proven and safe chemical,” but “an endocrine-disrupting compound whose effects are reason for concern and should be studied further.” At the end of 2004, greater than 30 papers had found associations between BPA and adverse health effects in animals, including reproductive abnormalities, behavioral effects, hormonal irregularities, and increased risk for prostate and breast cancers. In humans, BPA has been associated with increased risk of sterility, miscarriage, obesity, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
If you decide that this is enough to turn you off of your beloved plastic Nalgene or disposable water bottle, there is good news! Sigg makes aluminum bottles with linings that are BPA-free and phthalate-free, and Nalgene has started making stainless steel bottles with no plastics whatsoever. In fact, many companies now offer BPA-free options.
It’s one thing to ruin your diet with the occasional Magnolia banana pudding, but why incur any potential damage to your health because of poor choice in plasticware? Even if the science is inconclusive, I’d rather be safe than sorry. Here’s one of my favs in case you need a place to start.