Plastic in Foods

How much plastic are we eating and what is it doing to our health? Nutrition Diva investigates.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #214

Plastic in Foods

Nutrition Diva fan Trish writes:

“I keep hearing reports about researchers finding plastic in children's blood. What exactly are they finding and where is it coming from? Are we ingesting enough plastic to cause cancer? How could plastic cause diabetes or obesity? Most importantly, how do we protect our kids (and ourselves)?”

You’re right, Trish. There is a lot of scary information out there about the amount of plastic that we are all being exposed to and the potential effects on health. I wish this were one of those things that I could dismiss as a myth or urban legend. Although there’s definitely good reason to be concerned, it might help to have a better understanding of the situation. Let me see if I can sort it out for you.

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Are We Being Plasticized?

First, it’s absolutely true that plastic compounds used in bottles, cans, and other food containers are finding their way into our bodies. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control report that virtually everyone they’ve tested has BPA (or Bisphenol-A) residues in their urine. To tell you the truth, finding BPA in the urine seems like a hopeful sign. It means that our bodies are doing exactly what you want them to do when exposed to a toxin: they’re eliminating it. I’m more concerned about reports finding that many of us have substantial levels of BPA and other plastic compounds in our blood.

What Harm Could BPA Do?

What kind of damage could these chemicals do to us? We have all kinds of animal studies showing that exposure to BPA causes malignancies, neurological damage, reproductive and hormonal problems, even obesity.

See also: Are Toxins Making Us Fat?

In humans, researchers have seen an association between BPA levels and obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (but not cancer). Now remember, correlation is not the same as causation. It could be that these compounds are actually contributing to these diseases in some way. Or, higher BPA levels could simply reflect an unhealthy diet high in soda and other packaged and processed foods. After all, fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods don’t contain much BPA.

BPA levels have also been correlated to miscarriages and polycystic ovary syndrome in women, and declining sexual function in men. It’s not surprising to see these sort of hormone-related problems associated with BPA, because these plastic compounds mimic estrogen in the body, causing endocrine disruption.

Our Children Are at Greatest Risk

But it’s our really kids who are at greatest risk from BPA and similar chemicals that saturate our food supply and our environment. Because of their smaller size, their exposure to these chemicals is proportionally much larger. What’s worse, their tissues and organs are in a state of rapid growth and are much more sensitive to disruption. Developing fetuses are at the greatest risk of all. Not only are developing quickly but they have not yet developed the liver enzymes and other detoxification mechanisms to break these chemicals down.

See also: Foods to Avoid When You’re Pregnant

How Is this Stuff Even Legal?

By now, you’re probably wondering how BPA could even be legal. Industry experts insist that the research is inconclusive and that consumer exposure is well under the threshold for safety. Activists trying to ban the stuff argue that these thresholds should be much lower, especially when you consider the multitudes of different chemicals that we’re being exposed to. A war to ban BPA and other similar chemicals is being waged but progress is slow.

How to Avoid BPA


There are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure to BPA. Although I think these measures would be prudent for anyone, they are especially urgent for anyone with small children or who is pregnant or breast-feeding:

  1. Use glass instead of plastic containers for leftovers. If you must use plastic, make sure they’re marked on the bottom as #1, 2, or 4—and be sure let food or beverages cool before putting them in the container. Heat speeds the leeching of plastic compounds into foods.

  2. Breast-feed your babies. If you use formula, use powdered instead of liquid formula and be sure your bottles and sippy cups are BPA-free.

  3. Discard scratched plastic containers, baby bottles, or sippy cups. Not only can scratches increase leeching of chemicals, they also harbor bacteria.

  4. Never use plastic containers or plastic wrap in the microwave. This includes “microwave safe” wraps and “steam-in-bag” vegetables. Microwaving in glass or ceramic containers is fine. In fact, it’s a good way to preserve nutrient content.

  5. Avoid water bottled in plastic. Get a refillable stainless steel water bottle for everyone in the family…especially kids. (Be sure to clean them regularly and well.)

  6. Yet more reason to skip the soda: BPA is used to line aluminum soda cans.

  7. Limit your consumption of canned foods, especially tomato sauce, vegetables, and soups. Buy these foods in jars whenever possible or look for canned goods labeled BPA-free.

Even better, eat more fresh foods. Although BPA-free packaging is becoming more common as concerns about the chemical rise, many manufacturers are simply using other types of plastic that haven’t raised concern…yet. My personal rule of thumb is to keep plastic as far from my foods and beverages as I can, without causing a ruckus. And if I were pregnant, I’d probably go ahead and cause a ruckus.

Keep in Touch

Thanks to Trish for suggesting today’s episode. If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.  I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

BPA Information for Parents (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)

Water Bottles, Child with Water Bottle, Glass Container and Metal Water Bottle images courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.