You already know that microwaving your leftover chicken stir-fry in its plastic container is a major no-no, but that's not the only way to end up with a mouthful of chemicals.
An alarming new report from the University of Texas Health Science Center and the U.S. government suggests that most popular supermarket foods—including dairy, meats, condiments, drinks, and pizza—may be contaminated with a variety of plastic chemicals called phthalates. These chemicals are commonly used as plasticizers (what makes plastics soft, rubbery, and less breakable) in items such as fragranced shampoos, detergents, cleaners, lotions, and shower curtains. But now researchers are saying that some small amounts of the stuff may be traceable in your favorite packaged foods too.
“When phthalates get added to plastics, they don't fuse into a new atom, so they stay separated, which means they can leak out and get picked up through the air, skin, water; they're everywhere and nearly everyone has been exposed to them,” says Christopher Ochner, Ph.D., a research associate at New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center who isn't associated with the study.
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Which is a scary thing since studies have been linked phthalates to breast cancer, birth defects, obesity, asthma, motor and behavioral problems in kids, and sexual dysfunction in men. “The good news is that the estimated levels of contamination through diet were much lower in this study—and considered 'safe' according to the Environmental Protection Agency—than in some previous similar studies,” Ochner says.
While it's pretty impossible to avoid exposure to phthalates completely—even the “boy in the bubble” couldn't hide from 'em (his bulbous plastic capsule made to protect him would surely be full of the stuff)—minimizing exposure is doable. Follow these four smart tips from Ochner to lower your phthalates levels and reduce your risk of developing health issues.
1. Eat less dairy and pork. These foods had the highest levels of contamination in the study. “It might be because of the plastic tubing used to milk cows or the plastic packaging containing the meat,” Ochner speculates, “but we don't really know how phthalates are getting in there, and more studies are needed."
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2. Limit your use of plastic containers and wrap. Try to use glass to preserve leftovers, and most definitely never heat up food with plastic. “Lots of studies are going on right now that show that microwaving food in plastic is horrible for you,” Ochner says.
3. Order fresh fish and meats from the market or butcher. “Anything that hasn't been wrapped or packaged in plastic is better for you,” Ochner says. “And beef, in general, proved to have the lowest concentrations of phthalates levels compared to the 72 different foods that were tested.”
4. Choose better plastic drinking bottles. “If the recycling code on the bottom of the bottle reads #3 or #7, put it back," Ochner warns. “Those types of plastic are more likely to contain phthalates."