In the past five or ten years, obesity and diabetes researchers have started taking a closer look at environmental factors that have unexpectedly strong disruptive effects on our appetite, food consumption levels and metabolism, even at levels currently deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The potential of artificial sweeteners to lower glucose tolerance in less than a week by shifting the balance of gut bacteria is only one unnerving example.
Environmental chemicals like fungicides, pesticides and plasticizers (BPA and the like) have long been of concern for cancer, endocrine disruption and infertility. Some extensive and carefully conducted studies now reveal that some of these chemicals can also increase fat cell development and storage as well as insulin resistance. Low levels of exposure directly increase the rate of obesity in rats, and population studies, though not as extensive, show that exposure also tracks with obesity in humans.
These common chemicals are now being considered obesogens–chemicals that cause obesity or at least make people more prone to it. And these are effects that may end up being passed down.
In the rat studies, the effects lasted for several generations, and that also seems to tally with earlier findings on environmental endocrine disruptors and male infertility. Some of the tests that were conducted on rats in the obesogen study were too invasive to perform on human subjects, and a human generation is a lot longer than a rat generation–20+ years vs. 6 weeks–so it may be hard to trace inheritance in humans just yet.
Well–so what does it mean for us while we wait for the perfect definitive human study to come along?
To my mind, it means taking a harder look at how we choose the food we eat. We can’t remove all pesticide residues from the environment but we can probably eat fewer things wrapped pristinely in plastic and cut down our reliance on plastic utensils and disposable containers.
As I look around my kitchen, I realize just how often I reach for plastic sandwich bags–daily for lunches, but also for leftovers, herbs, halves of onions or lemons, cheese, vegetables. Stacking plastic storage containers keep soup, salad, rice or beans–or this week, an overload of stuffed shells, since I finally got my cook-once-eat-six-times-or-so batch cooking mojo figured out. And almost everything else in my fridge and on my shelves is in contact with plastic at one time or another.
Plastic wrappings pervade most of the supermarket offerings–overwraps on plastic-coated juice boxes, plastic see-through windows on cardboard pasta boxes, sacks of dried beans and rice, loaves of bread, plastic inner bags for boxed cereals and snacks, and plastic linings on the insides of tin cans. Also, of course, all those bottles of soda and energy drinks and vitamin waters and juices and milk. And yogurt. To say nothing of fast food, vending machine food, and so on.
Plastic is everywhere because it’s cheap, light, flexible, avoids breakage in shipping, and it helps you keep your food dry if you want it dry or moist if you want to keep it from drying out. You can keep everything separate and clean and airtight even when stored side by side. You can store it in the freezer and take some types of plastic containers right to the microwave. If you want to give up plastic, either for health reasons or environmental ones, you have to give up some of those advantages too.
Your next best bets are glass, which is heavy and breakable and no longer reliably tempered borosilicate, at least not in the US. Or perhaps stainless steel, at least for cold containers–maybe a stainless steel kit for lunches? I don’t know–if you don’t take strict care of it, or if it’s in contact with wet or acidic foods for long periods, it may rust. Storing salads or tomato-based items might be a problem. Ceramic bowls and containers–also heavy and breakable, and some of the food-approved glazes still leach measurable amounts of copper and other metals.
I do occasionally see someone from the homesteading and health food store generation, or else in Amish or Mennonite-style dress, loading up on bulk buy drygoods at Whole Foods with their own glass jars and cotton drawstring bags. And I always admire them for it, but I also think that’s an awful lot of stuff to trundle around to the store and get the clerks to okay. It is not easy to do and it’s obvious they’ve saved up for a monthly trip to stock up because you wouldn’t want to have to do it more than that often, especially when you have young children in tow, even very well behaved young children as they often do (another thing to admire them for; my daughter used to go and play hide-and-seek in the corner grocery when she was that young. At least she knew not to take anything).
But back to plastics and food storage. The obesogen phenomenon is intriguing but probably not the main source of the current obesity epidemic. Common sense says people might have slightly more propensity for developing fat cells but they’d still be small cells if people weren’t overfeeding them by eating more calories than they used to. That’s the major trend, by far. It’s still the food itself that matters most.
Processed and fast food still dominate as popular items of diet, and they’re very high-calorie-density compared with most nonstarchy bulk vegetables, which never seem to be recommended first on any popular weight loss and fitness show anymore (cough–Dr. Oz–cough, cough–avocado brownies–cough, cough). French fries still double the calories and double to triple the sodium of a fast food package meal, but they’re always and ever present, and almost no one passes them up at the burger joint. Putting that Happy Meal or Egg McMuffin in a stainless or glass container won’t make it less caloric or help you lose weight if it’s a regular part of your routine.
If you do decide to use less plastic in the kitchen–and it’s a perfectly good idea if you have a reasonable replacement–I’d say don’t panic if you still depend part of the time on plastic containers like Tupperware or snaplock semi-disposables (Glad, Rubbermaid, Kroger etc. store brand generics). Wash them well with hot soapy water once or twice before the first use to get rid of loose plasticizer residues. Using them in the fridge or freezer is probably safer than heating in them–the cold slows things down and makes it less likely for them to leach, particularly if you make sure food is cooled at least to room temperature before putting it in a plastic container.
If you heat foods in the microwave and want to avoid plastic containers altogether, don’t use tempered glassware other than old Corning Pyrex if you still have it (see the warnings about the newer, inferior stuff in the right sidebar) and Corelle plates (still available at Target). Use microwaveable stoneware instead and alternate the pieces you use–the performance standards for “microwaveable” designation aren’t very consistent and some ceramics still develop cracks after a year or more of regular microwave use.
I actually have slight reservations about Corelle ware too at this point, although nowhere near as severe as about the tempered coke bottle glass that passes for Pyrex these days. My experience is that the flat plates from my original Corelle set seem to have survived better than the bowls in the microwave, maybe because more of the plate lies flat on the turntable and doesn’t get as much exposure to the microwave energy. The bowls didn’t crack during microwaving per se but they did become more brittle eventually and tended to break into sharp shards if they clinked against the countertop or the sink once too often. Granted, this was after a few years of pretty constant use, and that set of dishes was bought 25 years ago. I would imagine plain round bowls would still hold up better and with fewer hot spots than the designer squarish bowls that have corners.
But in any case, obesogenic or not, maybe the biggest thing you can do is take a hard look at what food you’re buying. Bulk vegetables, dried pastas, grains and legumes are less likely to be in intimate contact with plastic, you can wash or rinse them before cooking, and they probably won’t have much residue compared with processed and prepared foods. They’ll generally be less calorie-dense and less expensive per serving than fast food versions, and they’ll deliver more vitamins and minerals–and fiber.