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One way or another, we have all witnessed a scene with a toddler eating at the table. It is just a matter of time for the bowl to find its way onto the floor after being banged on the table for what seems like an eternity. Hence, to protect both kids and dishes, many parents choose plastic plates without giving it a second thought. After all, plastic is unbreakable, colorful, and cheap. While all of these are true, the main question should be – are plastic dishes safe for our kids and for us?
If you struggle with weight gain, your kids go to preschool or go through puberty at the age of 10 or 11, this post is for you. In addition, if you have a thyroid disorder, breast cancer or infertility, this post is for you. In other words, it is for anyone who uses plastic in any form, because it is not as cheap and convenient as it seems.
What exactly are plastic plates made of?
To begin with, plastic is a common term for a broad range of synthetic and semi-synthetic solids. Generally, the raw materials for plastic are crude oil and natural gas. Plastic manufacturers extract compounds from these materials and eventually link them into polymers.
In the final stages of processing, they modify plastic with chemical additives. To clarify, the additives help create specific texture, color, clarity, heat, durability, light resistance, and flexibility. However, these final additives are not always permanently bound to the plastic and are free to leach out under certain conditions. The latter may be heat, dishwashing, microwaving, and contact with fatty or acidic foods. And this is a big problem because many of these additives in plastic plates are highly toxic.
BPA-free plastic dishes
By now, most of us know to stay clear of Bisphenol A (BPA), a plasticizer used in some plastic products. The reasons to avoid BPA are as follows:
- BPA may increase the risk of insulin resistance and heart disease.
- It mimics the female hormone estrogen and can act in the body as such.
- As an endocrine disruptor, it interferes with the body’s hormone system and may produce a variety of adverse effects on the developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems (source).
- It may contribute to the development of certain kinds of cancer (source).
Additionally, there is scientific evidence that endocrine disruptors have nonlinear dose-response relationships (source). This means that a low dose may be even more potent than a higher dose for a given response to a particular compound. That is to say, even small doses of BPA may be wreaking havoc on our bodies.
BPS and BPF in plastic plates
It should be noted that “BPA-free” is not synonymous with “safe.” BPA’s purpose is to make plastic dishes stiff and clear, so when you take BPA out, you need to put in another plasticizer. However, the replacement may not be any better than the BPA itself. Thus, recent research reveals that common BPA replacements – Bisphenol S (BPS) and Bisphenol F (BPF) – are just as harmful (source).
Therefore, “BPA-free” may mean that there is BPS, BPF or some other substance without sufficient research data. We simply do not know yet of a plasticizer that is safe.
On the other hand, do not fall for “BPA-free” labels on products that were not supposed to have it in the first place. To clarify, BPA is used to make a type of plastic called polycarbonate. So, if the product is not made of polycarbonate plastic, there was never a BPA risk. In this case, the “BPA-free” claim is just a marketing tool.
Are all types of plastic bad?
So, should we avoid all plastic plates whatsoever – even those that do not contain BPA or its substitutes?
To answer this question, let us look at the results of tests conducted by a Stanford-educated professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin and the founder of CertiChem lab George Bittner, Ph.D. He tested a variety of plastics and reported back that almost all tested commercially available plastics leached synthetic estrogens (source).
Moreover, it happened even without the conditions that unlock potentially harmful chemicals in plastic dishes. Namely, the conditions are the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the ultraviolet rays of the sun. According to Dr. Bittner’s research, some BPA-free products released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.
The impact of estrogens through plastic plates
You may think that the level of those leached estrogens is too small to make an impact. Unfortunately, scientific research shows that these compounds work at very low concentrations. Together, they affect estrogenic signaling more dramatically than individually (source).
Additionally, the same amount of these compounds will affect preschool kids more than adults. Why? Because they eat more food per pound of their body weight. In other words, they take on more toxic chemicals per their body weight. Also, food stays in their digestive tract longer, so they absorb more toxic chemicals.
Furthermore, these tiny estrogen-mimicking chemicals that plastic plates leach disrupt the function of the body’s endocrine (hormone) systems. The health issues that may arise from this include early pubertal development, obesity, and decreased male and female fertility. Moreover, estrogens coming from plastic dishes may cause breast, ovarian or prostate cancer. They may also lead to abnormalities in reproductive male organs, immune system diseases, and thyroid disorders.
Lastly, scientific research shows that early exposure to endocrine disruptors may not manifest itself until later in life. On top of that, endocrine disruptors may not only affect the offspring but also the offspring of the offspring.
The kinds of plastic
As you know, plastic “recycle codes” differentiate between the recyclable and landfill-bound items. When you cannot avoid plastic, eliminate the conditions that stimulate leaching of endocrine disruptors from it, such as:
- Heat (microwaving, dishwashing and drying, hot food, sun, heat)
- Acidity (storing tomato-based and vinegar-based foods in plastic dishes)
- Abrasion (dishwasher washing and scrubbing)
- Fat (oily or fatty kinds of food)
- Duration of contact (the longer the contact with plastic plates the more leaching)
The chart below will help you minimize your exposure to the most harmful types of plastic.
Is silicone dishware safe?
Rather than a type of plastic, silicone is a hybrid between a synthetic rubber and a synthetic plastic polymer. While most plastics have a polymer backbone of hydrogen and carbon, silicone’s backbone consists of silicon and oxygen, and hydrocarbon side groups. That is why it has plastic-like characteristics.
It should be noted that silicon and silicone are two different substances. Silicon is an element of silica, i.e., sand, one of the most common materials on earth. However, to make silicone, they extract silicon from silica and pass it through hydrocarbons to create a new polymer with an inorganic silicon-oxygen backbone and carbon-based side groups. Hence, while silicon might come from a relatively benign and plentiful resource like sand, the hydrocarbons in silicone come from fossil sources like petroleum and natural gas. So, silicone is a kind of hybrid material (Beth Terry “Plastic Free,” p. 277).
Are silicone plates safer than plastic plates? Let us look at some studies describing silicone’s properties.
Research into silicone
First, the 2017 Norwegian Food Safety Authority found that all samples of silicone bakeware it tested leached siloxanes. The good news is that the leachable amounts were under “permissible” levels.
Second, this study shows that silicone and natural rubber can leach nitrosamines. However, all tested products were considered safe for use. Thus, N-nitrosamine and N-nitrosatable substance levels did not exceed the permitted management specifications.
In sum, I believe that silicone dishware is safer than plastic dishes. On the other hand, we do not know enough about it to use it with full confidence. Personally, I am ok with it when the food contact is quick, and we do not heat it. For example, I let my husband use silicone spatulas to turn over pancakes quickly. Also, in this case I advise you to look for high quality silicone products (aka fully curable) that are not from China.
Is melamine dishware safe?
For starters, melamine is a flame-retardant chemical. They use it to make adhesives, industrial coatings, plates, cooking utensils, and other plastic products.
In 2008, there was a major food incident in China that resulted from melamine poisoning. To clarify, melamine had been deliberately added at milk-collecting stations to diluted raw milk to boost its protein content. As a result, about 300,000 infants and young children suffered kidney and urinary tract effects, including kidney stones, and six children died (source).
Potentially, melamine can slowly migrate into food from plastic plates. Nevertheless, the FDA states that melamine does not migrate into most foods unless the conditions are exaggerated. For example, the migration into acidic food took place when the food was held in the tableware at 160°F for two hours (source).
Overall, according to the FDA, consumer exposure to melamine is low. Thus, the FDA says the amount of melamine that gets into orange juice is 250 times lower than the acceptable level in foods other than infant formula.
On the other hand, the FDA adds that heating acidic food to extreme temperatures (160°F or higher) may increase the amount of melamine that migrates out of plastic dishes. Consequently, it recommends not heating food and drinks on melamine-based dinnerware in microwave ovens.
Research into melamine
In a Taiwanese study, one group of six people ate noodle soup from ceramic bowls and another group of six people ate from melamine bowls. After three weeks they switched. Each time, the researchers collected the participants’ urine samples about 12 hours after eating.
The test results showed that the urine of the people who ate out of melamine plastic plates contained 8.35 micrograms of the chemical compared to 1.31 micrograms found after they ate from a ceramic bowl. So, the researchers came to conclusion that the consequences of long-term melamine exposure are of concern (source).
Further, the World Health Organization states that the body does not metabolize melamine but rapidly eliminates it in the urine. In animal studies, high doses of melamine caused inflammation and the formation of bladder stones. However, there are no human research data.
In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that they had sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of melamine under conditions in which it produced bladder stones. Still, there is inadequate evidence for carcinogenicity in humans.
To sum up, with all the uncertainties around melamine, I suggest we stay away from plastic dishes made of this material. There are other options that are much better and safer.
What options are there other than plastic plates?
Just like you, I want my son to get the best start in life. That is why we do not use plastic bottles, food containers, plates, cups, spatulas, jars or anything else plastic at home. What do we use? Well, we use and love stainless steel and glass dishware. You can find out why I consider these materials safest in my Safe Cookware Guide that Makes Sense.
When my son attended preschool, their teacher used plastic plates and cups for kids. I volunteered to buy stainless steel plates and mugs for the whole class. I bought these stainless steel mugs that are of perfect size and shape for little hands learning to be graceful while dining. And the teacher approved of these plates because of the right size and weight for the little ones, too.
Of course, there are things that are out of our control and there is exposure to plastic here and there. Nevertheless, refusing to use plastic plates at home or during outings is an easy step we can take to reduce our exposure to this material.
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