The Art of Microwaving Food at MIT

How to avoid inviting harmful chemicals to your table
MAR 2019
Clara
M.
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

My mom has been in the fertility business for more than ten years, developing solutions to ease the exhausting hormonal treatments required before in vitro fertilization. She introduced me to the concept of EDCs, or endocrine disruptor chemicals, which can interfere with the hormonal response of living beings. These hormone-mimicking chemicals are commonly found in plastics and pesticides, which means if you think about it, that they are basically found everywhere. Our permanent exposure to EDCs could be the reason why, as counterintuitive as it seems, humanity is experiencing an unprecedented decrease of fertility and why, ironically, the fertility business has never been so fertile.

 

Some of you may say that a decrease of fertility could be a good thing given that there will be almost 10 billion humans on Earth in 2050… and though it’s not my opinion, I won’t argue with that. But hormones are not just about reproduction; for example, adrenaline regulates your heart rate, insulin balances your blood sugar level. Point is, you don’t want anything to mess up with your hormonal system. Yet, that is exactly what EDCs do. A growing number of studies are making connections between the exposition to EDCs and the occurrence of cancers, diabetes, obesity, developmental issues and infertility.

 

But, what are these EDCs? And what on Earth do they have to do with the microwave?

 

Have you ever wondered why the water-fountain bottle in your grad lounge proudly says “BPA-free”? Well BPA, or bisphenol-A, is certainly the most popular EDC and is a component of many, many types of plastic. Identified about ten years ago as a potential threat to newborn development, its use has since then been regulated and banished from plastic baby bottles (and obviously from water fountains). The reason for all these concerns is that BPA, like any other EDC, migrates from plastic to food and liquids when they are in contact. If you see this as a diffusion process, you can imagine that the migration will be even more vigorous when the food is hot…Now you may start to see where I’m going with this.

 

It means that every time you warm up your food in a plastic container, you invite a little bit of EDC to your table. Same when you buy food to-go that is in contact with plastic; not only containers, but plastic-coated cardboards, plastic wraps, cans… Of course, you only ingest a very tiny dose every time, but this may be the key point regarding EDCs: being under a low-dose, long-term exposure may cause even more adverse effects to you, your offspring, or the offspring of your offspring.

 

Sadly, BPA is only the tip of the iceberg, and although a lot of effort has been made toward regulating its use, it is only one among more than a hundred EDCs identified—as of today. You might also have heard of the phthalates, which increase plastics flexibility (see if you can bend your Tupperware), or the parabens, which are present in countless shampoos, beauty products, and in certain food as preservatives (E214, E216, E218…). Perfluorinated compounds make things anti-adhesive (pans, fast-food boxes, popcorn microwaveable packs, etc), and pesticides, well, you know, make things grow. The list is long, and I could keep going, but I would rather focus on some easy ways to reduce your exposure to EDCs.

 

To our current knowledge, some plastics are worse than others. Thankfully, it is easy to identify what type of plastic you are dealing with most of the time—it’s labeled! For a start, the figure below gives you a simple guide of what types of plastic should be avoided. Here are a few other tips:

  • For microwave use or food storage, it is preferable to replace your plastic container or bottle with one in glass (even when you’re taking food to-go, it’s possible! Look for my upcoming blog article “BYOB… or Bring Your Own Bowl”)
  • Instead of food cans, see if you can find a brand that sells what you want in a glass jar.
  • It is usually safer to choose organic vegetables and fruits. However:
    • Choosing sustainably-grown local food may avoid prolonged contact with plastic wrapping
    • Choosing seasonal food may limit the amount of vegetables grown in plastic-covered greenhouses (EDCs migrate through warm air, too…)

All this is even more relevant for those of you who are pregnant, or are living with someone who is. At this point, it has been proven that the exposure of a fetus at critical periods of its development via the mother’s environment and alimentation might cause developmental and future fertility disorders.

 

I have to finish on an optimistic note: everyone can help. We just need to be aware, change a few habits, and spread the word. So, next time you’re in the lounge waiting to warm up your food in a glass container, if you see something, say something.

 

 

For those of you interested in more readings:

 

For me it all started for me with this report about BPA, where everything they say is likely applicable to other EDCs.

This link contains pretty tough but thorough review about what we know of the consequences of EDC exposure.

 

Finally, if you want a more comprehensive definition of what EDCs are, check this out.