Microplastics in Foods: A Microscopic Health Concern?

When you were a kid, chances are you played with little plastic food items and maybe even tried to take a bite every once in a while.  Now that you are an adult, you may have heard that there could actually be tiny-sized pieces of plastic in the food you are eating. These are known as “microplastics,” and here’s what you should know about your food and your health.

Are microplastics just really tiny pieces of plastic?

Yes! As the name implies, microplastics are small pieces or fibers of plastic that range from roughly the size of a garden ant all the way down to one micrometer (think microscopic) or even smaller.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, measures them as “less than five millimeters in their longest dimension.”

Microplastics can be formed from the gradual whittling away of larger plastic items in the environment.  A specific type of microplastics called microbeads have been used to make some cosmetic products, like exfoliating face washes. Studies reported in Science Daily indicate that we can even produce microplastics when washing clothes made with synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester.

But how do microplastics make it into food?

Microplastics have been found in different types of food items—from honey to beer and bottled water.  The exact sources of these tiny particles in foods are unknown.

Microplastics originate from everyday items, so the sources can be hard to pin down. These tiny particles float around in the air like dust, so it is no surprise that they could find their way into your food. Some researchers suspect they could come from food packaging.

Mircoplastics in Marine Life provides a general overview of their impact on aquaculture.  Studies indicate that microplastics found in sea water can also make their way into different sea creatures that people then consume. In the case of fish, microplastics are mostly found in the intestines, which are typically left uneaten anyway.  Shellfish, on the other hand, are eaten whole and thus may be a source of microplastics in the diet.

Are food microplastics harmful?

As of yet, no confirmed health consequences for humans have been identified due to the ingestion of microplastics, and it is likely that most of these particles simply pass through our digestive tract.  Still, we can use scientific reasoning to gauge how likely they are to be a health risk.

When you drill down into the data, the number of microplastic particles found in some common foods is rather low.  By some estimates, there are an average of just 28 specks of this microscopic dust in a bottle of beer and about one speck in a single teaspoon of honey. Reported counts in bottled water are potentially higher, but they also are widely inconsistent from bottle to bottle.  Some shellfish do contain microplastics, but even the most extreme shellfish fanatic would be hard-pressed to consume an amount that could be harmful.

Some of the concern around microplastics stems from their ability to absorb and, once eaten, release different types of chemical compounds. This sounds scary, but as we just discussed, the amount of microplastic particles an average person would ingest is already likely too low to lead to any health problems.

Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland believe that microplastics are a Pandora’s box, and studies of their effects on public health remain scarce.  While current levels of microplastics found in foods are not cause for great alarm, scientists are working hard to better understand microplastics by inventing new ways to measure them and evaluating how they could affect our health in the future.

In the meantime, go ahead and enjoy that beer.

This blog post was written by Matthew Teegarden, PhD, Ohio State University Wampler Endowed Fellow for Food and Health Research.

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