Friday, April 22, 2011

Plastic wraps - a contentious issue!

A note left on my blog by ‘Maria’, Easter - why is it so?, referred to plastic wrap and how she and her partner felt towards it and, being a ‘green’ household, Maria had to hide her sole packet of plastic wrap in a bottom draw where her partner would be unlikely to find it. I’m not a fan of ‘plastic wraps’ either, although I do use it. I never use it to come into contact with food – merely to cover without contact – nor would I ever contemplate its use in cooking. I certainly never wrap food in it, although I will wrap a sandwich in paper sandwich wrap and then wrap that parcel in plastic wrap - there's always some protective barrier between the food I intend to eat and the plastic wrap.

I do enjoy a cup of soup made from a concentrated soup sachet and boiling water, however, I only use a soup brand, Hansells King Soup Singles , which are 98% Fat Free, have no MSG, contain all natural flavours and colours and real ingredients and are, essentially, a 'clear soup' of low residue. The ingredients come in foil sachets, not plastic, and I do not reconstitute the soup ingredients in the plastic cup they come in, preferring to reconstitute those in a glass soup bowl.

I do recall watching an episode of a national cooking show late last year, you know, one of those ‘eviction cooking shows’ where contestants are progressively eliminated each showing. Interspersed along the week of episodes was a regular “How to do it!” session conducted as a 'tutorial' by two of the judges, top chefs in their own right. I was gob-smacked when watching one of the latter sessions when they demonstrated how to poach an egg. They placed some plastic wrap over a cup, cracked an egg into the plastic wrap and then knotted it off before dropping it into a pan of boiling water for thirty seconds. They then spooned out the plastic mess, cut away the plastic wrap and peeled the egg out of it leaving a decorative poached egg, looking something like a small white artichoke, to sit on a plate which they then proceeded to ‘dress up’ with other food items.

Just why two top chefs were not able to poach an egg in the conventional manner by immersing it in a simmering pan of boiled water was never explained but I was horrified to see the use of plastic wrap to cook food in this way.

I also recall from my nursing days when we had a man admitted who had wanted to kill himself. He was admitted in a very distressed condition, dehydrated, in great gut pain, suffering bouts of diarrhoea which, remarkably, contained small pieces of shredded plastic wrap. We learnt from his flat mate that he had been eating a commercial roll of plastic wrap. After much treatment over many weeks, including several operations to remove sheets of plastic wrap from his gut – he lost a large part of his small intestine as a result – he was still not getting better.

We sought advice from a top physician who was a nationally recognised epidemiologist and pathologist who was well known for his diagnostic skills. He quickly diagnosed the man as having a toxaemia, a condition of illness due to the presence in the bloodstream of toxins and, in this case, it was a toxin known as Bisphenol A, or, BPA.

BPA is one of the elements used in the chemical make up of plastic. This substance has been the subject of many health concerns. BPA is known as an “endocrine disruptor” that leaches into the food and water contained in plastic containers (heat accelerates this process.) BPA disrupts hormonal, genetic and physical development. Recent studies suggest that can BPA can lower sperm count, cause infertility and impotence at high levels. Bisphenol A is also referred to as a “gender-bender” which is found in everything from water bottles to plastic wraps and dollar bills (paper money) and receipts.

Researchers have linked BPA to a number of serious health conditions. These include developmental issues, hormonal problems, breast cancer, prostate cancer and uterine cancer. Further health conditions include asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. This man had a serious neurological and cardiac conditions that were not responding to conventional treatment. BPA was the reason for this.

The man did not respond to our intensive treatment and, eventually, he died. I have little doubt that the toxic effects of ingesting large amounts of plastic wrap led to his bodily systems being contaminated with BPA which contributed to his demise!

While some of the claims about the toxic nature of ‘plastic wraps’ are questioned by their defendants, food safety experts do agree that consumers should take the following precautions when using plastic wrap or plastic containers in a microwave oven:

1. Only plastic containers or packaging labeled "Microwave Safe" should be used in microwave ovens.

2. If plastic wrap is used when microwaving, it should not be allowed to come into direct contact with food.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, chemical components can indeed "migrate" from plastics into food at microwaving temperatures. However, there is scant evidence to date, says the agency, that such contaminants pose a serious threat to human health.

Dioxins and dioxin-related compounds are pollutants that mainly enter the environment (and food supply) as industrial by-products. Particular dioxin compounds are considered to be highly toxic, with known health hazards ranging from birth defects to cancer. Studies have shown that dioxins may be released into the atmosphere when chlorinated plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — which is a component of some plastic wraps and food packaging — are incinerated at high temperatures, but there is no research demonstrating that dioxins are produced when the same plastics are heated in a microwave oven.

Here, it is worth noting however, that S.C. Johnson and Son, the manufacturers of Saran Wrap, a common retail plastic wrap, have reformulated this product such that the product no longer contains PVC (or any other chlorinated substance which could release dioxin.) I’ve never know any manufacturer to change the contents of their product willingly unless they were afraid of some form of litigation.

DEHA [Di(2-ethylhexyl)adipate] is a "plasticizer" — a softening compound added to plastic products to make them more pliable. Studies have shown that DEHA, when present, can migrate into food at high temperatures. Though it is not contained in Saran Wrap, it has been, and may still be, an ingredient in some other brands of plastic wrap.

At issue is whether or not (or to what degree) it is toxic to human beings. The current scientific consensus is that it is not, at least not in the minute amounts resulting from migration from plastics into foods.

Even though DEHA has long been regarded as a possible human carcinogen, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed it from its list of toxic chemicals in the late 1990s after concluding, based on a review of the scientific evidence, that "it cannot reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer, teratogenic effects, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, gene mutations, liver, kidney, reproductive or developmental toxicity or other serious or irreversible chronic health effects."

It must be noted that while the plastics industry and government health agencies in both the U.S. and Europe currently maintain that chemicals migrating into food from plastic wraps and containers pose no human health threat, consumer and environmental groups say otherwise. Both sides support their case by citing a lack of concrete evidence. The FDA argues that no studies have yet demonstrated toxic effects on humans; consumer advocates argue that not enough studies have been done.

Virtually all sources do agree on one important point: Consumers can and should protect themselves when using plastic products in the microwave by following the basic precautions stated above: i.e.

1. Only plastic containers or packaging labeled "Microwave Safe" should be used in microwave ovens.

2. If plastic wrap is used when microwaving, it should not be allowed to come into direct contact with food.

What all of this does is leave me wondering more and more about the tonnes of plastic that manufacturers are wrapping our foodstuffs in and leave me yearning for those days long gone when I could walk into a grocer’s shop and buy my biscuits (cookies), different flours, rice, by the bag weight and have my butter cut off a slab, weighed and wrapped in greaseproof paper to transport home, etc. At least we never bought much more than we intended to eat in the short term as we had little need of long term storage when our supplier was the corner grocery store.

Oh well, I guess that merely shows that I am getting old and wistful.

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