Microplastics are everywhere, including in some of our favorite foods. These tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in size are byproducts of the wear and tear of plastics in our environment. From trash in the oceans to household products we use every day, all plastics eventually break down and can make their way onto our plate.
Some foods are becoming notorious for microplastic content, plus nanoplastics under 1,000 nanometers in size. Read on to learn which foods you’re eating might contain plastic in every bite.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claims that “plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris in the ocean” and in the American Great Lakes. There’s so much microplastic in the sea it’s no wonder why sea animals are ingesting it. Unfortunately, that means people who eat seafood are also eating the microplastics found in these animals.
Shellfish, crustaceans, mollusks and fish are currently some of the highest sources of plastic in our food chain. Seafood like prawns, wild squid, oysters, blue crabs, and clams could all contain tiny bits of plastic that end up in your meals.
When it comes to which fish or seafood has the highest concentration of microplastics, sardines land at the top of the list. A recent study of commercial-value Australian seafood found the highest amount of microplastics were in sardines, out of the varieties of seafood studied. Their results showed that up to 30 mg of plastic could be in each 100-gram serving of sardines.
Other seafood in this study included oysters, squid, tiger prawns and crab. The seafood from this list with the lowest amount of plastic was squid, with a contraction of about 0.7 mg of plastic per 100 gram serving.
5. Processed and Packaged Foods
A recent recall of Pilgrim’s Pride chicken breast nuggets was due to contamination from tiny pieces of flexible rubber. Though rubber isn’t considered a standard plastic, it’s a similar substance that landed in convenience foods we eat during processing and packaging.
That’s right, our food can become contaminated from its own packaging. Packaging degrades and can actually release microscopic bits of plastic when opened or handled. Plastic can slip into our food from even the leftovers kept in plastic food storage containers.
4. Plastics Commonly Found in Packaged Foods
Many different types of plastic are used throughout the processing and packaging of our food supply, but there are six standouts. These microplastics often come from polyurethane, polypropylene, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene.
It’s important to note that microplastics are categorized as primary and secondary. A primary form of microplastic is one that was intended to be that small, like plastic powders used in molding. Secondary microplastics are those that break off from degrading plastic, like the bits of plastic that can shed off a fishing net.
3. How Foods Are Tested for Microplastics
As reported by Chemical & Engineering News, one method researchers use to determine the amount of microplastics in seafood is by first removing the plastic particles from seafood tissue by hand. The microplastics are then suspended in a solvent and studied with a method of spectroscopy that utilizes electromagnetic radiation. This form of study can pinpoint what types of plastics these sea animals are ingesting.
The Australian seafood study used a method called pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry. This spectrometry method was particularly valuable for determining mass concentrations of plastic in seafood, where this was previously difficult to accomplish.Related: Why Plastic Straws are Bad
2. Microplastics and Health Concerns
Plastics in our bodies act as chemical contaminants. In other words, eating plastic can cause us harm. Though studies of specific microplastics are still relatively new, effects of various forms of plastic exposure have been researched for many years.
Ingesting and exposure to plastics can lead to hormone imbalances, immune and nervous system challenges, infertility, and cancer. Microplastic might make its way through the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from foreign substances. There’s also concern that ingested plastic might be able to slip through a pregnant woman’s placenta into the bloodstream of a growing fetus.
1. How to Reduce Your Exposure to Plastic
Because of how much plastic debris is floating in our oceans, and how much plastic is part of our everyday lives, it’s nearly impossible to live completely plastic free. However, you can considerably lower your exposure to plastic with some simple steps. Avoid eating sardines, shellfish and other seafood known to be high in microplastic content, or eat them only occasionally. Swap out your plastic food storage bags and containers for ones made of materials like glass, bamboo and stainless steel. Avoid plastic grocery bags and buy fewer foods that come in plastic-based packaging.Related: 10 Poisons Consumed Daily