Plastics: The Sixth Basic Food Group — Part 1

Rose Marie Williams

Readers who saw the 1970’s film The Graduate, starring a young Dustin Hoffman undecided about a career path, may recall the scene at his graduation party where an older family friend places an arm around young “Ben” and utters, “In one word – plastics. The future, my boy, is plastics.” Three decades later, the future is here and plastics are everywhere. We are now just beginning to understand the many ways plastic chemicals can interfere with health.


Phthalates are synthetic chemicals commonly found in inks, adhesives, vinyl floor coverings, some paints, and most plastic, including food wrap. Phthalates are plasticizers used to make plastic products more flexible. Their effects on human health is increasingly coming into question.

The offspring of female rats exposed to phthalates demonstrated a variety of abnormalities. “Most striking were their effects as androgen (male hormone) blockers in male offspring, which included a reduction of testosterone levels and abnormalities in the male reproductive tract.” [1]

A higher risk of miscarriage was observed among women exposed to high levels of phthalates. [2]


Researchers at the University of Missouri have been studying the effects of hormone disrupting chemicals that leach out of plastic products. Bisphenol-A, an ingredient in the lining of metal food cans, polycarbonate water jugs, and dental sealants applied to children’s teeth, was found to alter the development of male reproductive organs in mouse studies using amounts comparable to what humans currently ingest. [3]

Dental Sealants

Coating children’s teeth with bisphenol-A to prevent dental caries is being done by ever increasing numbers of dentists around the country. Meanwhile, researchers in Spain have found this substance to be an estrogen mimic which could cause cancer.

Closer to home, researchers at Tufts School of Medicine found saliva from bisphenol-A treated patients to be estrogenic. Ignoring the research data, the American Dental Association continues to defend the practice. [4]

Of Mice and Men

Male mice whose mothers were exposed to bisphenol-A in doses as low as two parts per billion showed changes that would result in permanently enlarged prostate glands. When doses were increased to 20 parts per billion, a permanent 20% decrease in daily sperm production was observed. [5] The unanswered questions is – what role has exposure to plastic chemicals played in human prostate problems, fertility problems, birth defects and cancer?

Sugar, Cream and Styrene

Styrofoam cups and meat trays do more than keep your coffee hot and your meat neatly packaged. Nearly as pervasive as the coffee break itself, white “plastic” or “foam” styrene cups outgas toxic chemicals into the coffee. As endocrine disrupters they are increasingly suspected of contributing to breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid and other glandular problems. [8]

One study of fat biopsies from human subjects conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found styrene residues in 100% of the samples tested. Fat in humans and other mammals serves as a storage site for many toxic chemicals which bioaccumulate over time, leaching out many years later causing damage to cancer protecting genes. [7] If more money were put into this area of cancer study instead of additional ways to use chemotherapy and radiation, we might make some headway in understanding cancer causation and prevention.

Meat and cheese on styrene trays wrapped in clear plastic easily absorb lipid-loving chemicals from the packaging materials. Chemicals from styrene trays and some brands of plastic wrap easily migrate into foods with a high fat content. Removing foods from these packaging materials immediately after purchasing is recommended.

As for the office coffee break ritual, substituting styrofoam cups with washable ceramic mugs is both environmentally friendly and a good pro-health choice.

Placticizers in Plastic Wrap Migrate

Plasticizers in some plastic wraps have been shown to migrate into fatty foods such as meat and cheese. Of seven brands tested by Consumer Reports, Reynolds Wrap and Saran Wrap contained some of the five plasticizers being tested. Studies indicate some plasticizers migrate into food at the point of contact, even during refrigeration. [8]

Some cheese wrapped in plastic was found to contain as high as 50 to 160 parts per million of the adipate plasticizer, DEHA. Waxed cheese with clear plastic overwrap was found to have 1 to 4 parts per million of the common phthalate, DEHP. [9]

Consumers may wish to rewrap store bought cheese with waxed paper, or buy cheese cut to order at a deli and ask to have it wrapped in waxed paper.

Microwaveable Plastics

Concerned consumers may wish to avoid using plastic containers and plastic wrap in the microwave. Manufacturers advertise the plastic containers as “microwave safe,” but this in no way guarantees the food is safe when heated in plastic. Dr. Carlos Sonnenschien of the Tufts University School of Medicine has been studying the problem of chemical migration from plastics for over two decades and strongly recommends substituting glass or ceramic ware for microwave use.

Dr. Sonnenschein and his colleague, Dr. Ana Soto first became aware of this problem when studying blood samples that appeared to have been contaminated with a substance that caused an estrogenic effect in the blood cells. After checking and rechecking every possible source of contamination they concluded estrogen mimicking chemicals were leaching out of the new variety of plastic vials in which the blood was stored.

Plastic Lined Cans

An increasing array of foods are being marketed in plastic lined cans. Most recently I was surprised to find pumpkin, beets, chick peas and chopped clams packed in plastic lined cans, with no label information giving any clue.

The biggest shock, however, came from a purchase at a local health food store. Muir Glen “organic” tomatoes are also packed in plastic lined cans. A close inspection of the Muir Glen label revealed a sentence indicating the contents were “packed in lead-free white enamel-lined cans.” There was no mention of plastic or bisphenol-A on the label. However, an inquiry to the company brought forth some interesting information.

An explanation of the difference between “white-enamel” and plastic lining was requested. The response letter of 4/19/00 from Muir Glen Organic Co. reads as follows:

“Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding bisphenol-A in can linings. We are aware of the controversy surrounding this issue, and have conversed with both our can manufacturer and the National Food Processors Association of which we are a member, on the use of bisphenol-A. Muir Glen will continue to monitor this situation, through both our can manufacturer and the NFPA. If you have any further questions, please feel free to telephone us at 1-800-832-6345.


Susan Leonard”

The response failed to explain the difference between “white-enamel” and plastic. In fact, it did not even mention “white-enamel.” It did mention bisphenol-A and even included a printout sheet titled, “The National Food Processors Association position on

bisphenol-A,” which offered the following explanation:

“Most scientific authorities agree that there is no need for public health concern about cans lined with epoxy coatings to help preserve their contents… (T)he topic of estrogen/hormone mimickers is a new and open scientific question, upon which there is little consensus…. The NFPA has conducted independent research on the migration of bisphenol-A from metal food containers into various foods and beverages…and they believe the FDA will conclude that any potential migration of these substances would have no health significance.”

A phone call to the Muir Glen 800 number was made to express disappointment about organic food being packed in plastic lined cans. Ms. Leonard informed this writer that Muir Glen Organic Food Co. is now owned by General Mills, and that “enamel” was used “to avoid the tinny taste.” Ms. Leonard was quite clueless about the entire concept of organic foods and it became apparent that the conversation was going no place.

Agitated by the unwholesomeness of the whole mess, an email was sent to Sarah Johnston, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, asking about organic requirements for packaging and plastic lined cans. Ms. Johnston replied that the American Organic Standards do not deal with potential leaching of packaging materials into foods. Agreeing that this is a serious issue, however, she promised to look into it further.

“Plastics — An Important Part of Your Healthy Diet”

So claims a full-page advertisement from the American Plastics Council in a National Geographic, 2000 Magazine, suggesting that plastics could be thought of as “the sixth basic food group.” “Oh, you certainly wouldn’t eat them, but plastic packaging does help protect our food in many ways,” assures the ad.

Granted, plastic delays spoilage. However, we are indeed “eating” plastic chemicals. Unbeknown to most consumers, many foods leach chemicals from plastic packaging materials and plastic microwave containers. In addition, children are being exposed to chemicals in plastic baby bottles, teething rings, and plastic toys. Perhaps plastic truly has become the sixth basic food group, after all.

Chemical Industry & Health Advocates Spar

The Nov/Dec 1999 issue of Mother Jones Magazine letters section featured what amounted to a verbal sparring match between Courtney M. Price, VP, Chemstar Chemical Manufacturers Association of Arlington, Virginia, and Jon R. Luoma. Mr. Luoma authored an article titled, “System Failure,” which appeared in the July/Aug. issue of Mother Jones.

Ms. Price attacked Mr. Luoma for implying that all phthalates are endocrine disrupters, which she indicated is wrong, and jabbed him for mentioning a “flurry of studies” on phthalates, which she claimed did not exist. Mr. Luoma countered these attacks by indicating each of Ms. Price’s jabs was “an obfuscation or an outright error.”

He defended his position by qualifying the “flurry” of studies showed “endocrine disrupter effects on the male reproductive system,” and that “phthalates did their damage as anti-androgens, blocking testosterone,” and thus “inducing feminization symptoms in male lab rats.” [10]

The stakes are high on both sides, and undoubtedly, the scientific controversy and the verbal sparring will heat up, while those suffering the greatest blows will be the uninformed consumers.


(1.) Lee, John, R, MD, The John R. Lee, MD, Medical Letter, Phoenix, AZ, Jan., 2000.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) World Wildlife Fund Magazine, “Chemicals That Compromise Life: A Call to Action,” Wash., DC, 1998.

(4.) Citizen’s Petition Newsletter, Amherst, NH, Summer/Fall 1998.

(5.) World Wildlife Fund Magazine, Chemicals That Compromise Life: A Call to Action,” Wash., DC, 1998.

(6.) Rogers, Sherri, MD, Total Wellness Newsletter, Syracuse, NY, July, 2000.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Consumer Reports Magazine, “Your Health,” June, 1998.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Mother Jones Magazine, “Letters Section,” Nov/Dec. 1999.

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Townsend Letter Group

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

You May Also Like

Medicinal properties in whole foods

Medicinal properties in whole foods Gina L. Nick The Disease-Fighting Effects of Hyaluronan Hyaluronan (also known as hyalur…

Simplifying nutritional support in CFS/Fibromyalgia

Simplifying nutritional support in CFS/Fibromyalgia – Highly Effective Treatments for Pain and Fatigue Jacob Teitelbaum In last mon…

Gymnema: a key herb in the management of diabetes

Gymnema: a key herb in the management of diabetes – Phytotherapy Review & Commentary Kerry Bone P.O. Box 713 Warwich QLD 437…

Alzheimer’s disease — a functional approach

Alzheimer’s disease — a functional approach David Perlmutter As the 20th century comes to a close, we are witnessing a staggering …