What do we know about microplastics in food?

Most of the plastics produced globally are used for food and beverage packaging. During its use, however, plastic becomes worn and breaks into small fragments called microplastics. In this Honest Nutrition Feature, we explain the potential dangers of microplastics, how food becomes contaminated with them, and ways to reduce exposure.

CREDIT: gettyimages

Globally, 322 millionTrusted Source metric tons of plastics were produced in 2016, of which 60%Trusted Source supplied the food and beverage industry for food packaging. These plastics contain an array of chemicals, including stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, and plasticizers.

Exposure to some environmental conditions, such as heat, causes plastic to break into smaller fragments called microplastics, which can migrate into food.

Single-use water bottles, to-go containers, food cans, and storage wraps are examples of common plastic-based food packaging that contains microplastics.

Heating food in plastic packaging, long storage times, and the type of plastic packaging a person uses all affectTrusted Source the amount of the microplastics and their harmful chemicals that migrates into food.

The dangers of microplastics

Microplastics are the fragments of stabilizers, lubricants, fillers, plasticizers, and other chemicals that manufacturers use to give plastics their desirable propertiesTrusted Source, such as transparency, flexibility, and durability.

However, experts have classified many of these chemicals as toxic and harmful to human health.

Below, we discuss some of the dangers of microplastics in greater detail.

Disrupting hormones

Scientists consider at least 15Trusted Source of the chemicals manufacturers use to make plastic packaging to be endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine disruptors are structurally similarTrusted Source to some hormones in the body — such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin — and mimic and disrupt their natural functions, leading to adverse health effects and increasing a person’s risk of chronic conditions.

In particular, research has shown that exposure to BPA plays a role in infertilityTrusted Source in males and females alike, as well as in the development of polycystic ovary syndromeTrusted Source.

BPA competes with estrogen and testosterone for their receptors, reducing the amount of these hormones available for reproductive health.

Common microplastics in food

The microplastic chemicals present in food are a mixtureTrusted Source of those that manufacturers deliberately add, such as fillers and stabilizers, and those that accumulate as byproducts, such as residues and impurities.

Some common microplastics present in food include:

  • bisphenol A (BPA): Manufacturers useTrusted Source this plasticizer to make polyvinyl chloride, the “parent” plastic of many products.
  • dioxin: This is a byproductTrusted Source of herbicides and paper bleaching, which contaminate the environment.
  • phthalatesTrusted Source: These make plastics more flexible, transparent, and durable and are present in many types of food packaging.
  • polyethylene and polypropylene: These make packaging lightweight and durable and are the most commonTrusted Source plastics present in food and the environment.

Microplastics found in smaller quantities in food include BPA and BPF, mono-(3-carboxypropyl), mono-(carboxyisononyl), and mono-(carboxyisoctyl).

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