Most of you have probably heard of Bisphenol A (BPA), a common ingredient found in plastic. It’s received a lot of negative attention in the past few years and is definitely worth steering clear of. Any substance that disrupts hormones and mimics estrogen is worth paying attention to. On the flip side, just because we’ve found “the culprit” (BPA) doesn’t mean that even those plastics that are BPA free are entirely safe.
Another toxic ingredient found in plastics is Phthalates. Phthalates are what make plastics flexible and are in everything from PVC to plastic bags to personal care products. Phthalates are a known endocrine disruptor that specifically disrupt the hormone testosterone and has been associated with abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in men.
Definition of the Endocrine System
The endocrine system is in charge of our hormones. It is made up of glands (such as thyroid, pituitary, pancreas) that produce and secrete hormones. These hormones regulate the body’s growth, metabolism, sexual development and function. When we see things like our baby boys being born with smaller sexual organs, and our girls starting puberty as young as 8, and women getting breast cancer at staggering levels, we know that we ‘d better sit up and take notice.
Scientists are finding that these endocrine disruptors, that mimic hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, are negatively impacting our health, and the health of our children. Our level of exposure isn’t always something that we can control. We are not only being exposed to BPA and phthalates in this area but most of us live in a home that (at the very least) has flexible PVC pipe that takes our water from the supply line in the wall up to the faucet. This isn’t something we can easily change. So let’s take a look at something we can.
There are many different types of plastics out there, some claiming to be a better choice, some as known offenders. The problem occurs when, and under which circumstances, that plastic comes into contact with our food. One thing we know for sure is that plastic leaches. And, if that plastic is touching your beverage or food when it leaches, then you’re eating plastic.
Plastic leaches when it:
1. Is heated (microwaved) (pre-cut veggies to be steamed)(hot soup poured into Ziploc bags)
2. Is exposed to light (water bottle left in a car)
3. Comes into contact with fatty or acidic foods (potato salad or tomato sauce stored in a plastic bag/container).
4. Has wear and tear marks (bite marks on a sippy cup lid, old Tupperware from grandma)
Whether its BPA free, expensive Tupperware, or disposable it’s important to remember that plastic is plastic is plastic. If it’s exposed to the aforementioned elements it’s likely to leach.
Let’s go back to BPA for a minute
So we’ve bought the BPA- free water bottle and sippy cup and that’s a really good start. But does anyone know the #1 way that we are exposed to BPA? Canned foods! The lining is coated with BPA because there has to be some barrier between the aluminum and the food.
We are being inundated with endocrine disruptors in so many areas, including our environment, that if there is an area, such as plastic, where we can take control and make a positive impact, then it’s worth doing.
Alternatives to Plastic
Plastic wrap is plastic. If you are covering a warm bowl of mashed potatoes or covering a bowl of soup whilst warming it up in the microwave and it is touching your food, it is likely leaching. Melted plastic wrap in your soup is not a tasty side dish!
I do have plastic wrap in my house. I only buy Glad Cling Wrap brand or Natural Value because it does not contain plasticizers or PVC (this means no Phthalates).
Alternatives: Instead of using plastic wrap to cover your food try using a plate. Plates often fit nicely on top of bowls and cut down on waste and exposure to plastic.
Cover food with a paper towel, a piece of natural waxed paper, parchment paper, or a silicone trivet before putting it in the microwave.
Frozen meals usually come surrounded in plastic. Since they are going in either the microwave or oven, that plastic is likely leaching.
Alternative: Pre-freeze your own meals or take them out of the plastic container and microwave or bake that same food in a glass container.
Pre-cut veggies ready to steam in plastic bags-
Alternative: You can still buy these but steam in your rice cooker, in the microwave using glass container and a plate on top, or on top of the stove.
Pre-cut apples from Costco- marinating in plastic for who knows how long
Alternative: Cut up apples, sprinkle on a little citric acid (cheapest in bulk section at Fred Meyer) or lemon juice and store in glass.
If you buy pre-packaged baby food avoid the kind sold in plastic containers and go for the glass
Storing food we make at home
If you make your own baby food:
Re-using baby food jars is not recommended (by Gerber). The glass is not thick enough to be frozen and freezing can cause tiny shards of glass to shed in your babies food.
Alternatives: Freeze in ice cube trays (There are stainless steel ice cube trays to be found. If you use plastic be sure to cool the food down completely before putting in the ice cube tray) then put in glass containers or plastic bags.
Soup and Sauces
When you go to the trouble of making a lovely soup at home (maybe you’ve even spent extra on organic ingredients) think about how you store it. Do you want to then put it into a plastic bag? Handy, but if it’s warm it’s going to cause that plastic to leach. If it’s acidic (tomatoes in it) it’s going to cause it to leach. If it’s got fat in it (oil, meat) it’s going to leach.
Alternative: Pyrex glass containers
This is my favorite option. With glass one can spend a lot of money or a little. Pyrex is a really sturdy, reliable brand that comes in perfect shapes and sizes, with lids (plastic- but BPA free) that make storing leftovers as easy as if using plastic. The only difference is that it can safely go from freezer to microwave to oven, to dishwasher, making it very versatile. Because the lid is plastic, it is a good idea to make sure that the food isn’t so high in the bowl that it’s touching the lid. Always remove the lid before microwaving.
Where to buy and Price: There are deals out there on Pyrex. I see it at Target in sets for as little as $18. Costco has a nice set for a reasonable price, but you can also find Pyrex at outlet stores, and online.
Canning jars- are another great choice and generally a very inexpensive option. Stores now sell screw-on plastic lids that fit on either wide mouth or standard canning jars. Try to get the jars with straight sides, versus curved, as they are less likely to explode (from expanding) in the freezer. Not only can you store your freezer jam in these but they are perfect for storing any type of leftover whether it’s in the freezer or refrigerator.
*Note- I have had the quart sized jars break more often than not, even if I leave a lot of head space at the top. I suggest only using the pint sized straight jars and refrigerating before putting in the freezer.
Where to buy and Price: These are downright cheap! Check your local thrift store, Freecycle, or ask your neighbors if they’ve got any they’d like to be rid of. You’ll find the lids at the grocery store alongside the containers.
Ikea has some really great glass storage options. They’re relatively inexpensive and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. TJ Maxx, Ross and Marshalls are a fabulous place to find all sorts of glass and stainless steel options.
Sippy Cups, bottles and water bottles-
If you buy plastic sippy cups, bottles or water bottles then be sure to buy the kind that are BPA free. Some even offer Phthalate-free. However, I’m still careful not to let beverages, in particular milk and juices, sit in anything plastic for long. I much prefer Stainless steel.
Stainless steel- Don’t be fooled by stainless steel water bottles that say BPA free. Unless they’re talking about the lid this means the water bottle is most likely aluminum and has been lined with a plastic, which doesn’t contain BPA, but is still plastic. If I wanted a plastic lining I would have bought a BPA free water bottle so be sure it says “stainless steel.”
Pro’s – Don’t leach, don’t break
Con’s- Expensive, can be obnoxious to clean (I only get the wide mouth kind)
Glass- They do sell glass water bottles now. They’re fine for adults but you can’t really send your kid to school with a glass water bottle. Instead of buying a glass water bottle, enjoy a Snapple or iced tea (I like Honest Tea) and reuse the bottle. That way if it gets lost, broken or if you get sick of cleaning it you just trot off to the store, plunk down another $1.50 and enjoy yourself another treat. Keep in mind that whatever you buy may very well flavor your water for weeks to come.
Lunch items and snacks like Goldfish crackers, dried fruit, nuts, cut-up veggies, even sandwiches don’t need to be stored in plastic baggies. There are really ingenious options out there right now for food on the go. One of my favorite places that has tons of options and reasonable prices is reusable bags.com.
Using Plastic Safely
Let’s face it, plastic is a great invention. It’s useful, it’s lightweight and it doesn’t shatter when your son drops it at baseball practice. Some ideas to make plastic more safe to use:
- Line plastic containers with parchment or wax paper or paper towel
- Store cookies in reusable plastic containers lined with parchment.
- Send cut up fruit to school in plastic bowls lined with parchment paper.
You can still use plastic for things like dry cereal and nuts. You can even use it for sandwiches and grapes. Just throw a little paper napkin in there first. It’s got dual usefulness because then the kids might think of using the napkin instead of their sleeve to wipe their jam smeared face!
Small steps have big impact
I encourage you to take a look around your kitchen. What is your food coming into contact with? Is juice (acidic) sitting in a sippy cup or plastic cup all day? Is that delicious soup you worked so hard to make marinating in a plastic Tupperware container? Is plastic wrap being put in the microwave? One small change makes a big difference. Take it one step at a time and see how you can eliminate plastic from your kitchen.
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