You’ve heard that microplastics is literally everywhere.

It’s in our food, in water and in the air we breathe. We swallow tiny pieces of plastic every single day, but why exactly are these microplastics in food and where are they coming from?

What can we do to reduce our exposure?

Let’s unpack this topic. This video will help too:

 

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are small plastic particles that are less than 5 mm in size. They can come in many shapes and forms, including fibers, beads, granules, spherules and fragments. Microplastics can be found in a variety of products, including some foods, cosmetics, personal care products, clothing, carpets, and industrial products like tires, paint, coatings and fertilisers etc. They can also be produced through the breakdown of larger plastic products over time. Microplastics are harmful to the environment and wildlife, as they accumulate in the oceans and other ecosystems. There is ongoing research on the potential impacts of microplastics on human health, and we’ll link some of the studies we found in this article, but more information is needed to understand the full extent of the risks.

 

Why are there microplastics in our food and drinks?

There are several ways that microplastics end up in our food and beverages. One way is through the use of plastic packaging materials to wrap food, which can leach small plastic particles into the contents of the package.

Microplastics also enter the food chain through the contamination of water sources by plastic pollution. For example, microplastics have been found in shellfish and other seafood that have been exposed to polluted water. Contrary to finfish, molluscs are eaten without the removal of the gastrointestinal tract and therefore are more likely to contain microplastics because microplastics are more commonly found in the “filter” organs like gills, liver and intestines of fish, which are not typically eaten.

Additionally, microplastics can be inhaled or ingested by animals, for example through contaminated feed and then end up in the food that we consume when we eat those animals.

There is ongoing research on the sources and pathways of microplastics in the food supply, and more information is needed to understand the full extent of the problem.

 

Which foods (and drinks) contain microplastic?

Several studies have detected microplastics in a variety of foods and drinks, including seafood, bottled water, and other beverages. Some examples are (in alphabetical order):

 

Beer

Studies have found microplastics in beer, in the highest amount compared to other beverages like cold tea and energy drinks.

 

Bottled Water

A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Chemistry has shown microplastics in bottled water in over 90% of the samples.

 

Breastmilk

Microplastics in human breastmilk have been studied for the first time in 2022. According to scientists, their findings, coupled with the previous discovery of these microparticles in the human placenta, represent a great concern, since it impacts the extremely vulnerable population of infants

 

Fruits & Vegetables

Nanoplastics (plastic particles which measure less than 100 nm) have been found also in fruits and vegetables, like apples, broccoli, and carrots. An Italian study from 2020 showed that apples were the most contaminated while lettuce was the least. A Chinese / Dutch study also from 2020, showed that nanoplastics accumulate in food crops through water absorbed by the root systems.

 

Honey

Microplastics in honey have been found from various locations around the world.

 

Rice

A 2021 study by the University of Queensland investigated for the first time mass concentrations of selected microplastics in store-bought rice, the staple of more than half the world’s population. Researchers found that people are consuming three to four milligrams of plastic for every 100 grams of rice they eat, with the number jumping to 13 milligrams per serve for instant rice.

 

Shellfish

Studies from several years ago have found high levels of microplastics in shellfish, including mussels, oysters, and clams.

 

Sugar

Some studies have detected microplastics in sugar, including both granulated sugar and powdered sugar, in all analysed samples.

 

Table Salt

Microplastics in table salt have been found in most types, sea salt and rock salt, including Pink Himalayan salt. Researchers found that 94% of salt products tested worldwide contained microplastics. Averaging over seven separate studies, they calculated that table salts contain a mean of 140.2 microplastic particles/kg. With a mean annual salt consumption of ~3.75 kg/year, humans therefore annually ingest several hundred microplastic particles from salt alone.

Tea Bags

Microplastics in tea bags has shown to migrate into your tea when in contact with hot water releasing 11 billion microplastic particles per cup.

 

Tap Water

The most current knowledge we found on this subject is a review on the occurrence of microplastics in tap water and bottled water from April 2022 published in the International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health, which concludes that bottled water was more contaminated that tap water. However, an earlier study conducted by Orb, a US-based non-for-profit media organisation, sampled tap water from more than a dozen countries globally and found 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres.

 

Wines with Polyethylene Stoppers

Microplastics in white wines with polyethylene stoppers was found in a recent study published in Food Chemistry.

 

It’s important to note that more research is needed to understand the potential impacts of microplastic ingestion on human health.

 

Related: Is it Harmful to store Food in Plastic Containers?

 

On average, what volume of microplastics do we ingest?

It’s difficult to say exactly how much microplastic the average person ingests, as it depends on a variety of factors, including diet, the use of personal care and household products that contain microplastics, and the levels of microplastic pollution in the environment. A 2019 study by the University of Newcastle in Australia has found that on average people could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card. This data would be the equivalent of 21 grams a month, and just over 250 grams a year, a quarter of a kilogram.

Another 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology estimated that the annual microplastics consumption of Americans ranges from 39000 to 52000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase even to 74000 and 121000 when inhalation is considered.

 

What are the consequences of ingesting microplastics?

The potential health risks of ingesting microplastics are not yet fully understood, and more research is needed to determine the long-term impacts on human health. Some studies have suggested that microplastics may be harmful to human health, and latest research published in 2021 in the Journal of Hazardous Materials analysed 17 previous studies which looked at the toxicological impacts of microplastics on human cell lines. Scientists found that specific types of harm – cell death, allergic response, and damage to cell walls were caused by the levels of microplastics that people ingest.

There is some concern that microplastics may accumulate in the body over time, potentially leading to a range of health problems due to long-term toxicity exposure. A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on male fertility in mammals discovered that microplastics affected sperm quality in animal models. Furthermore, microplastics are known to contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which mimic or interfere with the body’s own hormones and are linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune and other, and other health problems.

Last but not least, recent research has suggested that microplastics may interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the body, as shown in a 2022 study which found a reduction in the absorption of nutrients in farmed fish.

Again, it’s important to note that the evidence on the potential health effects of microplastics is still limited, and more research is needed to understand the full extent of the risks.

 

Related: Why You should avoid Plastic Water Bottles?

 

How to avoid microplastics in food?

There are several steps that you can take to reduce your exposure to microplastics:

  • Use alternatives to plastic products whenever possible, particularly around the kitchen where plastic is in contact with hot food or drinks.Choosing kitchen utensils made from natural materials, such as glass, ceramic or stainless steel, can help to reduce the potential for microplastic contamination. Do not microwave your food in a plastic container.
  • Try to buy food as much as you can without plastic, like through bulk stores or at least with the least possible amount of plastic packaging.
  • Avoid drinks in single-use plastics, like bottled water & sodas and filter your tap water.
  • Avoid products that contain microbeads: some personal care products, such as toothpaste and exfoliants, contain microbeads, which are small plastic beads that can enter the environment and contribute to microplastic pollution. Reading product labels and choosing alternatives to products that contain microbeads can help to reduce exposure to microplastics.
  • Recycle plastic products: properly recycling plastic products can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the environment, where it can break down into microplastics.
  • Remove synthetic carpets from your home as they create microplastic dust and opt for eco-friendly woolen rugs
  • Stop buying synthetic clothes as they release microplastics when they are being washed ending up in the ocean and contributing to the issue. Opt for buying less but high quality natural fibre clothes.
  • Support efforts to reduce plastic pollution: join an organisation that works to raise awareness on microplastic pollution like AUSMAP, the Australian Microplastic Assessment Project. By raising awareness and advocating for stronger laws and regulations on plastic production and waste management, we can all help to address the issue of microplastic contamination at the source.

 

Conclusion

While these steps might not completely avoid our exposure to microplastics ingestion, at least they can help reduce our exposure. Further research is needed to understand the full extent of the problem and to identify additional ways to reduce exposure to microplastics. We’ll publish it here as soon as available.

 

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