In today’s day and age, we can manufacture and process large quantities of food in record time, allowing companies to make food more available to consumers. However, this rapid production also increases the chances of unwanted contaminants finding their way into food, including plastic.
The National Library of Medicine found that the average American consumes more than 50,000 microplastic particles annually. In light of this outstanding number, it’s no wonder so many people are wondering how the plastic found in food can affect their health.
If you work in the food industry, you need to understand the most common types of plastics found in food and how you can improve product quality.
What Plastics Are Found in Food?
When you think of plastic, you probably imagine different kinds of packaging, like water bottles or vegetable containers at the grocery store. Plastic is a huge part of our everyday life, and, unfortunately, this makes it easier for microplastics to make their way into the food we eat.
Before figuring out how to better manage food quality, you must determine which types of plastics your food contains. Typically, plastic in food is the result of various residues, impurities, and microplastic chemicals that manufacturers purposefully add, like fillers. While this can lead to numerous types of plastic in food, the following are the most common:
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Polyethylene and polypropylene
While some of these are byproducts of herbicides, like dioxin, others are common for food packaging, like phthalates. However, the most common are polyethylene and polypropylene, which make lightweight packaging for many products.
Are Microplastics Harmful If Ingested?
According to some researchers, the average person consumes about five grams of microplastics every week, so what does this do to your overall health and well-being?
Researchers are still looking into the actual effects of ingested microplastics on the human body, but as more and more studies conclude, they find that these plastics can negatively impact your health in many ways.
Of the chemicals that packaging manufacturers use, 15 have been shown in scientific studies to disrupt the endocrine system. Known as endocrine disruptors, they have a similar structure to other hormones in your body, like insulin or estrogen, but they can disrupt these hormones and lead to many health issues.
For example, some studies suggest that BPA has a relationship with male and female infertility. Additionally, consuming certain microplastics over a longer period of time can increase your chances of developing heart disease or even type 2 diabetes.
Your gut and immune health are closely related since up to 80% of your body’s immune cells are in the gut. Therefore, taking care of your gut is crucial for maintaining overall health. Unfortunately, some microplastics can increase inflammation and decrease gut health, thus impacting your immune system.
Microplastics aren’t just dangerous if you eat them. Inhaling certain microplastics can inflame your respiratory system, making them a particular threat to those with preexisting lung conditions. They can also lead to conditions one never experienced prior to exposure.
Methods of Detecting Plastics in Food
The plastic found in food can impact your body in many ways, so it behooves food manufacturers and producers to minimize how much plastic and other unwanted contaminants are in their products.
If you want to detect plastic in your food, you can do this in a few ways.
One of the easiest and least expensive ways to detect plastic in food is by visually inspecting your food items. While most microplastics are hard to find, you can spot larger quantities or even residue using magnifying equipment, depending on the product. You can also check if the food looks different than normal; however, visually inspecting food requires a lot of time.
A chemical analysis can do more than tell you if there is plastic in your food. Depending on the equipment and techniques, it can also tell you what types of plastics are in the food and how much.
Using Food X-Ray Inspection Systems
Food x-ray inspection systems are one of the most popular ways for manufacturers to check their food quality and detect contaminants. These systems provide contactless inspections to find all sorts of contaminants in various food and beverage products, including plastics. Food x-ray inspection systems also make it easy for employees to identify contaminated food, as they produce clear images that reveal the culprit.
Challenges in Detecting Plastics in Food
Although we know microplastics in our food and water can lead to different health effects, certain obstacles make it challenging for manufacturers to eliminate them.
Low Detection Limits
Many food inspection systems focus on detecting foreign materials like metal but have difficulty finding thin plastics.
Lack of Standardized Methods
Unfortunately, the U.S. does not currently have standards for regulating microplastics in food, giving manufacturers the freedom to determine what’s acceptable in their products.
Interference From Food Matrix
Plastic found in food isn’t just because manufacturers use plastic for packaging. We produce around 380 million tons of plastic each year, and only a small portion of that goes toward recycling. Unfortunately, this means that many animals we consume for protein, like seafood, eat plastic.
Additionally, food products that chickens, cows, and other animals eat also contain seafood products, which means they are also consuming microplastics. In short, plastic has entered the entire food chain, making it difficult for us to compare contaminated foods with those we believe are plastic-free.
Sample Preparation and Analysis Complexity
Analyzing the microplastics in water is significantly easier than for other types of food. While we can filter out water and get a pure sample, it takes more work to ensure a chicken, for example, is completely plastic-free since you have to isolate the microplastics.
What Foods Are Most Likely To Contain Plastic?
Typically, processed foods and foods with plastic wrappings or containers are more likely to have microplastics. Here are a few examples:
- Canned foods
- Ice cream
- French fries
- Convenience meals
- Plastic-bottled water
Are There Regulations in Place to Limit Plastic in Food?
The FDA has few regulations to limit how much plastic goes in our food, but it does have guidelines for plastic food packaging. For instance, the FDA has a volunteer program in which inspectors check recycled polymeric food packaging materials to ensure they are safe when coming into contact with food products.
The FDA also has a list of plastics it considers safe for food packaging, including BPA. However, this lack of regulations and a list of approved plastics has created controversies in recent years. Regardless, food manufacturers are responsible for producing food that is edible and safe for consumption.
Studies show that some plastic in food has the potential to cause various types of health-related issues, so you must do what you can to ensure the food your company produces is safe and contaminant-free. A good place to start is by investing in food x-ray systems.