Microplastics in food: their effect on health and how to reduce them

Are we eating plastic beyond our means? It is the first thing that comes to mind when we learn that there are microplastics in the belly of fish and in the meat of molluscs. Normal, considering that the seas have become the largest landfill for human beings and that between 80 and 85% of marine litter is plastic. Lucky for us, we may think, fish are often gutted before cooking, which minimizes over-plasticizing our menu.

That’s right, unless you eat sardines, anchovies or bivalves: that’s where everything goes inside. The EFSA estimates that a 225-gram serving of mussels could contain up to 7 micrograms of microplastics, particles less than five millimeters in size. Other studies speak of nanoplastics, where the pieces of this polymer are puny (from one to 1,000 nanometers). Small, yes, but there they are. And not only in marine animals, they have also been found in table salt, honey, beer and even in drinking water, tap and bottled. In these cases, it is not only because of marine litter, but because of the plastic molecules that float in the environment.

Some studies give headlines as worrying as this one carried out by an Australian university for WWF that maintains that we ingest five grams of plastic a week, the same weight as a credit card.

First of all, calm down

Before panicking, and without denying the data from the different studies, AESAN warns that “there is no consensus in the available literature on the concentrations detected due to the lack of harmonization and validation of the methodologies.” That translated means that each group of scientists investigates on its own and that there is no human way to compare data.

If it is not known with certainty how much microplastic we swallow each year, because each one counts it in their own way, there is hardly going to be unanimity regarding the possible harmful effects on the body. This is certified by the SAPEA study, signed by various European scientific institutions. “We have no evidence of any disease that has increased due to microplastics to date,” explains José Miguel Mulet, professor of biotechnology at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and author of the book real environmentalism. “This reminds me a bit of what happens with endocrine disruptors. Super alarmist books have been written, but we are living longer and longer. They are fatally poisoning us!”

This does not mean that there is no need to be vigilant. “The current moment is one of deep uncertainty”, affirms the dietitian-nutritionist Aitor Sánchez in his book Your diet can save the planet. “Everything makes us think that the trend [a ingerir microplásticos] it will continue to increase, and the toxicity of the most common additives, monomers and polymers found in plastic has not yet been evaluated. When we assess the safety of these products, it is always done in the context of their conventional use. Who would have thought that the plastic you use in your day to day could return to you through the food chain?

They are not birds, but plastics also migrate

Do you look suspiciously at trays of filleted chicken breast from the supermarket thinking that the tiny-sized plastic is going to sneak into the meat and from there, it will invade your mountain body? Let’s go by parts. First, plastic is not like Raquel Welch in the fantastic trip. And second, and more importantly, European legislation has been limiting for more than 10 years the number of pieces of plastic that can be detached from an object in contact with food.

In Regulation (EU) No. 10/2011 they call it “specific migration limit”, that is, how many milligrams of plastic per kilo can be released without putting the health of consumers at risk. Be careful, we are talking about a kilo of material and the tray and the film together barely add up to a few grams. All plastic manufacturers without exception must comply with current legislation before putting a tray for fresh food or ready meals into circulation. So, breathe: you don’t die from this. Not even putting foods rich in fat or moisture in the tray, which can cause more nanoplastics to be released.

In search of a substitute for plastic

This much demonized material is cheap, light, resistant and guarantees food safety like no other. Unfortunately, neither bamboo, nor cardboard, nor glass, nor biodegradable eco-plastics have the same qualities as plastic. That is why highly perishable foods that are very easily contaminated, such as meat or fish, continue to arrive at markets and supermarkets in ordinary plastic containers. “Before asking for it to be removed, you must have an equal or better substitute. And to this day, don’t be fooled, there isn’t any”, explains Mulet. There are alternatives, but either they are not as resistant, or they weigh more, or simply make the final price of the food more expensive.

Replacing plastic in the food sector is by no means an easy task, but efforts are being made. The environmental group A Plastic Planet points out that 40% of the plastic produced globally is used for packaging. Half of them for drinks and food. Faced with this evidence, supermarkets free of this material have emerged where everything is sold in bulk, in glass, cardboard or in biodegradable bioplastic containers made from vegetable fibers. Apparently they are like plastic, but in just three months they can be composted without leaving a trace. This is how they work at Ekoplaza, in Amsterdam, or at Linverd, in Barcelona. “We even have dishes prepared with organic ingredients and in 100% compostable packaging,” explains Esteve Domènech, one of the two partners behind the Barcelona supermarket.

In their fight against this polymer they have even eliminated it from home deliveries. “We do it in cardboard boxes or paper bags,” he explains proudly. In the warehouse, however, some plastic packaging appears. “We choose suppliers aligned with the concept of sustainability and plastic-free, but in many cases it is unavoidable. There are products that come in wooden or cardboard boxes, but to protect the food well during transport, there is no other option but to add a thin layer of plastic. The important thing is to take steps towards less use of this material, especially single-use materials”, explains Domènech.

What if it’s not the sea bream’s fault?

Before tearing our clothes off in case there is plastic in the guts of the sea bream or in the cane at the bar on the corner, it is worth reviewing some of the usual gestures in our kitchen that can mean that we end up inadvertently gobbling up cannelloni with plastic. For example, putting plastics that are not suitable for withstanding high temperatures in the microwave or in the dishwasher will end up releasing nanoplastics or unfriendly substances with the heat.

Furthermore, do you reuse any plastic container with a lid as a taper, whatever it may be and wherever it comes from, as long as it closes well? Well you shouldn’t. It turns out that there are plastics qualified as suitable for contact with food and others where you should not put even half a croquette. If they don’t have a cup and fork icon, just use them to store clips, marbles, or whatever you can think of, but keep them out of the kitchen.

As far as is known, they kill more salmonella and listeria than nanoplastics. Some experts suggest that this is more than enough reason to fear dirt a lot more. Plastic raffia bags are resistant, last a long time and are wonderful to go to the supermarket. But you have to clean them from time to time so they don’t accumulate dirt that could affect the safety of bread, lettuce or whatever you buy in bulk. Are you a cool hippy and only use cotton bags? (sorry for the couplet). “Those made of this material have to be washed with more reason, since it is a vegetable fiber in which fungi and bacteria can grow. People think they can wear them to the end of their days without further ado, and no. It doesn’t happen anymore because, in general, everything in the supermarket is wrapped in plastic,” warns Mulet.

Then what do we do?

So use common sense. Or, what is the same, the strategy of the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle: whatever it takes as long as fewer plastics have the opportunity to end up on your plate. You can reduce – or eliminate – the use of plastic wrap by covering unused halves of fruits and vegetables with silicone lids, replace zip bags with traditional lunch boxes, get used to buying more in bulk by bringing your own containers and forget about the bottled mineral water because tap water is perfectly drinkable. That, by the way, there are authors such as Kieran D.Tox who suggest that, if you only drink bottled water, you get 90,000 microplastics a year as a gift, while if you drink the one from the tap the thing stays at ‘only’ 4,000.

The strategy of changing single-use plastics for returnable or reusable containers has been on the table for some time, but it has not yet started. Although they are sometimes used as synonyms, they are not. The reusable container indicates that the user can give it more lives. It happens when we reuse the one-liter tub of ice cream as a pan to store the chicken wings. The returnable container returns to the manufacturer to be put back into circulation, in exchange for a rebate for the consumer. This system is already used in Germany, Mexico or Chile and greatly reduces the volume of plastics that end up in the yellow container. It involves agreements with supermarkets so that the user can deposit the empty bottles or, where appropriate, refill them at a lower cost than if they bought the bottle again.

The soft drink giant, The Coca-Cola Company, intends that in 2030 25% of its references worldwide will be sold in returnable glass or plastic bottles. Even that they can be filled with special dispensers in the supermarket. In France they have reached an agreement with Carrefour to implement this system, while in the United States they have signed a pilot agreement with Burger King so that customers can refill glasses brought from home and not spend new glasses.

Recycle, friend, recycle

So that the plastic does not end up in the gut of a hake, it should not reach the sea. But it has arrived and in industrial quantities until 2021 because the European Union exported its plastic waste to countries in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, Malaysia or China. Countries that did not manage them well and ended up in the sea. This system of sending garbage to third parties was prohibited on January 1 of last year.

Now the fight against plastic stays at home. The idea is that if tons of plastic already exist and can be recycled, there is no need to manufacture new material and throw away the existing one. The European Strategy for plastic in a circular economy of the European Commission in 2018 laid the foundations to commit to recycling and the disappearance of disposable plastics. In July, it will be one year since the ban on the sale of some objects made of single-use plastics, such as plates, glasses or straws. It sounded impossible, but we have discovered that we can drink directly from the glass, without a straw, and nothing happens. And it is only the beginning: by 2030, 55% of plastic packaging will have to be recyclable or reusable.

How do you expect to achieve this? Applying the famous maxim of the European Commission that whoever pollutes, pays. As of January 1 of next year, in Spain those who manufacture non-reusable containers with virgin plastic will have to pay 0.45 euros per kilo of new plastic used. Other member countries of the Union are adopting similar tax measures. The proceeds will be used to finance the NextGenerationEU recovery funds. But, above all, it will give a boost to recycling and lengthen the life cycle of plastic. Because if we are clear about something, it is that we can be omnivores, flexitarians, vegans or devotees of the keto diet, but nobody wants to include plastic in their diet.

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