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Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN N.P. Headshot

Is Food Packaging Affecting Your Health?

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Most of us are genuinely trying to do our best to be healthy -- we buy organic food, try to drink filtered water, include more fruits and vegetables with every meal, the list goes on and on. But what about the plastic our organic vegetables are wrapped in? What about the plastic bottles holding our filtered water? And the microwaveable plastic bag we sometimes use to cook our extra veggies in because it's so easy? While the science is still relatively preliminary at this point, there is a possibility that the packaging surrounding our food may be just as influential on our health as what is inside.

Chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and PCV (polyvinyl chloride) have all been found in plastic food packaging, the linings of soda cans and canned food. These chemicals, often referred to as endocrine disruptors, do much more than simply help to protect and contain our food. They can mimic our natural hormones, turning on or off the body's native hormone signals to block natural responses or trigger excessive action.

BPA, in particular, could possibly disrupt the way our hormones communicate, and may, in certain amounts, lead to fertility issues, cancer, impaired brain function, Type-2 diabetes and obesity. But the problem is bigger than BPA alone. A recent study found that even the BPA-free plastic can potentially release "estrogenic chemicals" into food and beverages as well.

It's amazing to me that 100 years ago plastic packaging wasn't even a thought. The truth is, we simply don't know the long-term implications of these synthetic materials. I do know that our health and the health of our children is a steep price to pay for these modern conveniences.

New research offers hope

From baby bottles and toys to the lining of milk cartons, it may seem like plastic is everywhere and there this no way to reduce your exposure. But a recent study -- though small -- offers an opportunity for us to be hopeful and puts the power in our own hands. The researchers looked at levels of BPA and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) in individuals who were eating canned and packaged foods and drinking out of plastic water bottles. They were told to eat their normal diet and then were given fresh foods for three days that didn't come from cans or plastic. The researchers made sure the fresh food wasn't cooked or prepared in plastic or stirred with plastic utensils.

In just three days, the participants reduced their levels of BPA and DEHP by more than 50 percent!

In a time when we are hearing so many negative things about our food and our environment, it's refreshing to know that we can do something about the modern toxins we're surrounded by -- simply by making different choices around food and packaging. You can also make a difference in the way you eat as well. For tips on low-pesticide veggies, fish with low PCBs and mercury and an easy veggie spray recipe to clean your food, see my article six ways to enhance the quality of your food.

Tips to reduce your plastic exposure

Here are some of the tips I give to my patients and follow myself to reduce exposure to unwanted toxins:

  • Avoid using plastic as much as you possibly can. If you have to use plastic, look for items with recycling #1, #2, and #4 because they don't contain BPA.
  • Go back to glass, cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic and wood to cook, serve and store your food. Save old jars and lids to put your leftovers in instead of using Tupperware or other plastic storage containers.
  • Use canvas bags for your produce instead of the plastic they offer at the store. Use only glass in the microwave or get rid of your microwave altogether.
  • Use wooden and stainless steel utensils while cooking your food and silver or stainless steel for eating it.
  • Investigate local farms for fresh "unpackaged" vegetables and naturally raised meat. When my children were at home, we purchased pork and beef in bulk from a local farm and split the cost with other families. We stored it in our freezer and it fed us for the year.
  • If you're traveling, bring as much of your own food as you can and find the local grocery store or natural market for other fresh items.
  • Use a glass or stainless steel water bottle instead of drinking from plastic.

On a recent trip to Europe to visit my father, I was absolutely astounded by the fresh food available everywhere -- even the gas stations were stocked with homemade sandwiches, salad bars, fruit baskets and assorted cheeses. This is such a stark contrast to all the packaged food we find in our grocery markets.

I urge you to pay attention to what you eat and how it is packaged. Even if you only follow one of the tips above, you'll be making a difference. Don't let anyone tell you there's no hope. I know that our gas stations probably won't offer delicious, fresh food like I saw all over Europe any time soon, but you have a lot more power over your food choices than you may think. And every little bit counts.

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