Microplastics in Food: What You Need to Know

Microplastics are a series of compounds that impair the proper functioning of the body. Learn more about microplastics in food.
Microplastics in Food: What You Need to Know
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 22 March, 2023

Microplastics in food are elements that could be harmful to health in the medium term. It’s important to reduce their presence in the diet. To do so, the intake of fresh food must be prioritized, as these don’t usually come packaged, and there’s no risk of contamination with toxic elements.

It’s important to note that in the context of industry, contamination with microplastics is relatively common. These elements aren’t declared on food labels, and could even generate an increase in symptoms in processes such as inflammatory bowel diseases.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are known as a series of compounds that come from the disintegration of elements such as bags, containers, and other objects that can pass into the food chain and accumulate progressively in living organisms, causing health problems in the medium and long term.

Most commonly, microplastics are absorbed by marine animal species, even causing the death of these animals. At other times, they remain in the tissues, accumulating progressively as the trophic chain advances.

To this day, these elements have become a serious environmental health problem, as they’re practically everywhere. A small part of the plastics produced is still recycled, so most of it ends up being discarded. We must also mention the useful life of these products, which take hundreds of years to completely disintegrate.

Over time, the accumulation of microplastics in animals and food has become a public health risk, the impact of which isn’t exactly known. However, it’s believed that the intake of these compounds could be a risk factor for the development of many complex diseases.

Microplastics in food

A person grabbing a plastic bottle of milk at the supermarket.
Although it’s not reflected in the labeling of foods and beverages, it’s possible that many of them contain microplastics.

We’ve mentioned that microplastics can be found in processed products, but also in certain fresh foods. A large number of tons of these compounds are dumped annually into the sea, so many shellfish can consume these elements and store them inside, later passing into the human body.

It’s even possible that the microplastics themselves are in the common salt that you buy in the supermarket, which would significantly reduce its quality. As much as possible, it’s important to avoid the intake of these elements, as what their impact on health will be in the medium and long term isn’t precisely known. Even so, it’s believed that they could increase the incidence of certain diseases.

Among the most studied, we must highlight polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate. Both are usually found in liquid containers, such as soft drinks, milk, or juices. Food could also be contaminated with these compounds, especially from food processing or packaging.

According to a study published in the journal The Science of the Total Environment , regular consumption of microplastics could increase inflammation, as well as oxidative stress. Both are mechanisms underlying the development of many chronic and complex diseases, among which several types of cancer stand out. For this reason, it’s positive for health to reduce their presence in the diet.

Microplastics and microbiota

There’s also evidence that the regular intake of microplastics is capable of affecting the composition of the intestinal microbiota, reducing the density and diversity of the microorganisms that inhabit here. This effect increases the risk of certain diseases, such as inflammatory bowel diseases. Also, after a process of dysbiosis, the fact of suffering metabolic alterations becomes more likely.

It’s important to ensure that the microbiota remains functional over time to prevent the state of health from being conditioned. Eliminating microplastics from the diet, as we’ll see later, can seem difficult. For this reason, it’s important to promote other good dietary habits that reduce or prevent their impact on the health of microorganisms in the digestive tract.

Among all of them, the consumption of fermented dairy products and foods with large amounts of fiber stands out. Even supplementation with beneficial bacteria has proven helpful. In this case, an increase in diversity is promoted, which reduces the risk of developing intolerances, allergies, or other types of digestive problems that may condition the feeling of well-being.

Microplastics and cancer

In recent years, there has been a great deal of speculation about the influence of microplastics in food on the risk of developing cancer. There are several theories on the table, which include avoiding their intake as much as possible.

The truth is that the incidence of the disease seems higher when these compounds are accompanied by other toxins such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This is confirmed by an article published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. Microplastics could have a certain capacity to capture other substances, generating contamination and an impact on health.

Anyway, there’s a lot of disagreement about it. The evidence isn’t yet very solid, as there’s a lack of tests that clarify the true impact of these elements on the function of the body. It’s important to bear in mind that microplastics can not only enter the body through food, but they may also leak through the nasal passages, as they’re found in the environment.

According to a study published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, these compounds may be present in polluted air. Breathing in the pollution could increase their concentration in the bloodstream, allowing it to later reach the liver. From here, inflammation levels could be increased.

Solutions to combat microplastics

Many countries are proposing strategies to reduce the consumption of plastics and, thereby, curb levels of environmental pollution. These measures include the promotion of paper bags in supermarkets or changes in packaging policies. In fact, in certain countries, the use of single-use plastics has been banned, thus proposing more environmentally friendly alternatives.

As far as diet is concerned, it will always be preferable to avoid foods that come wrapped in plastic containers or packaging. It’s best to opt for fresh foods over industrial ultra-processed ones. The latter not only contain the mentioned compounds inside but are also a source of simple sugars and trans fats that impact the state of health.

Another of their harmful effects is that they increase the processes of inflammation and oxidation, enhancing the impact of microplastics in the body. It’s crucial to control these mechanisms to reduce the risk of illness in the medium term.

At the same time, it will be better to store water in glass bottles, as well as to choose cardboard cartons to contain other liquids such as milk or juice. It must be taken into account that the exposure of plastic containers to sunlight or heat can promote the fact that they release certain wastes into the liquid or food they contain, which would later have an impact on human health.

Other strategies to combat the effects of microplastics

Olive oil being poured into a bowl.
Incorporating certain substances that are capable of neutralizing the negative effect of microplastics (and any toxic compound) is a valid strategy to ensure health.

Reducing the consumption of microplastics to zero sounds utopian these days. However, a series of dietary strategies can be proposed to reduce their impact on the body. Among them, the increase in the contribution of antioxidant substances stands out. In this way, the formation of free radicals and subsequent accumulation in the tissues is neutralized, which has been shown to protect health.

Likewise, it will be beneficial to increase the presence of anti-inflammatory compounds in the diet. Among all of them, the fatty acids of the omega 3 series can be highlighted. These manage to help in the prevention of multiple chronic and complex diseases and are mainly found in oily fish, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado.

Even the use of culinary spices to flavor dishes would be considered very beneficial. We’re talking in this case of elements that concentrate phytochemicals inside. These compounds exert antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects while improving liver function, which can sometimes be compromised due to the involuntary intake of microplastics.

In order to reduce pressure on this organ, other dietary strategies can be implemented, such as the inclusion in the diet of artichokes or infusions, such as milk thistle. This will enhance the excretory function and prevent the appearance of non-alcoholic fatty liver over time, a chronic health problem that can be life-threatening.

It will also be crucial to ensure frequent exposure to sunlight. In this way, vitamin D levels will remain in optimal ranges, which will dampen inflammatory mechanisms, protecting the proper functioning of the body in the medium term. It should be noted that vitamin deficiency is related to a higher incidence of complex diseases.

Microplastics pose a serious health problem

Microplastics are practically everywhere. Little by little, they accumulate in animals and in nature. They can even be found in a large number of packaged or ultra-processed foods. This makes it impossible to escape from them completely. To reduce their impact, governments need to put in place policies that are more environmentally friendly.

However, it should be noted that the effect of microplastics on health can be cushioned by promoting a series of healthy lifestyle habits. This requires optimizing the diet to increase the contribution of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, especially those of plant origin. Likewise, the practice of physical exercise should be promoted on a regular basis.

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