Microplastics in Food: Impact on Health

published on 07 March 2024

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that have infiltrated our food and water, raising concerns about their impact on human health. Here's what you need to know:

  • Microplastics are everywhere: They're in our oceans, bottled and tap water, seafood, salt, and more.
  • Health risks: These tiny particles can cause oxidative stress, inflammation, genotoxicity, and act as vectors for contaminants, potentially leading to serious health issues.
  • Sources and detection: Microplastics come from both primary sources like cosmetics and secondary sources such as the breakdown of larger plastics. Scientists use methods like microscopy and spectroscopy to identify and analyse them in food.
  • Reducing exposure: You can minimize microplastic ingestion by choosing alternatives to plastic, filtering water, and supporting eco-friendly brands.

Understanding the presence and effects of microplastics in our food is crucial, and while research is ongoing, taking steps to reduce our intake is advisable for our health.

Primary vs Secondary Microplastics

Primary microplastics are made small on purpose. They're used in things like scrubs for your skin or in certain manufacturing processes.

Secondary microplastics come from bigger plastic items breaking down. This can happen because of sunlight, wear and tear, or just time. Things like clothes made from synthetic materials, car tires, and plastic bottles can all end up as microplastics.

Common Plastic Polymers

Here are some common types of plastics that turn into microplastics:

  • Polyethylene (PE): Think plastic shopping bags and containers for food.
  • Polypropylene (PP): Found in food packaging, ropes, and some clothes.
  • Polystyrene (PS): Used in packaging foam and disposable plates and cups.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): What most drink bottles and some fabrics are made of.

These plastics are all around us and break down into smaller pieces over time because of things like sunlight and physical stress. This is how they end up being microplastics.

Detecting Microplastics in Our Food

Finding and studying microplastics in food is tricky because they're so tiny and come in different types. But scientists have come up with some ways to spot and learn about them, which helps us understand how common they are in our food.

Looking at Them

Scientists start by using special microscopes to get a good look at microplastics. They can see the shape, size, and texture of these tiny bits. Some microscopes can even make microplastics glow if they use a special dye. But just looking at them doesn't tell us what they're made of.

Identifying the Plastic

To figure out what kind of plastic the microplastics are, scientists use tools like FTIR and Raman spectroscopy. These tools help them see the "fingerprint" of the plastics, telling them apart, whether it's polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), or PET. The catch is the microplastics need to be a bit bigger, at least the size of a speck of dust, for this to work well.

Breaking It Down

Other methods involve heating the microplastics to break them down, which helps identify and measure them. This can be done with fancy techniques like Py-GC/MS and TED-GC/MS. It gives a lot of detail about the microplastics but needs a lot of prep work.

New Ways

Scientists are also trying out new methods, like using advanced imaging or special stains with computer programs to find microplastics easier. These are promising but still need more testing to make sure they're reliable.

In summary, to really understand what's in our food, scientists use a mix of looking closely, identifying the types of plastics, and breaking them down. They're working on making these methods better so we can know more about microplastics and how they might affect our health, like causing inflammation, messing with our gut health, or leading to other health hazards.

Health Effects of Microplastic Exposure

Direct Toxicity

Microplastics can harm our bodies and cells in a few ways:

  • Oxidative stress: These tiny plastics can create harmful substances inside our cells that damage important cell parts like proteins and DNA. This has been seen in cells from our immune system, lungs, and guts.
  • Inflammation: When our bodies come into contact with microplastics, they can react by creating an inflammation response. This means our body is trying to fight off what it sees as an invasion, which can lead to health problems like cancer and diabetes if it happens too much.
  • Genotoxicity: Microplastics can also damage our DNA, either directly or by causing oxidative stress. Damaged DNA can lead to cell death or even cancer.

The harm caused by microplastics depends on a few things:

  • Size: Smaller particles can get into cells easier and cause more damage.
  • Shape: Sharp or jagged pieces might be more harmful.
  • Additives: Chemicals added to plastics can make them more dangerous.
  • Dose/duration: Being exposed to more microplastics for a longer time increases the risk of damage.

Role as Contaminant Vectors

Microplastics can carry other bad stuff with them:

  • They can pick up harmful chemicals from the environment like pesticides. When we eat them, these toxins can get into our bodies.
  • Chemicals that make plastics more flexible or fire-resistant, like BPA and phthalates, can leak out. These chemicals can mess with our hormones.
  • Microplastics can also carry harmful bacteria, introducing them into our bodies if ingested.

When microplastics, their chemicals, and bacteria come together, they might cause more harm than any of them would alone. We need more studies to understand these combined effects better.


Microplastic Contamination in Food

Microplastics are super tiny plastic bits that are everywhere around us. Researchers have found these tiny plastics in lots of foods and drinks we have every day. This means we might be eating or drinking them without even knowing, which could be a problem for our health over time.

Occurrence in Drinking Water

Both the water from our taps and the water we buy in bottles have microplastics in them. Studies found about 4 microplastic pieces in every liter of bottled water worldwide. Tap water isn't much better, with 1-11 pieces per liter, depending on where you live. These plastics get into our water from pollution and the process of bottling the water itself. The usual ways we clean water can't get rid of all these tiny plastics.

Presence in Seafood

A lot of fish and shellfish that we eat have eaten microplastics from the ocean. This includes popular seafood like oysters (84%) and anchovies (63%). On average, seafood like mussels and oysters have about 0.2 to 0.9 microplastic pieces in every gram. When people looked at seafood in stores, they found microplastics in all of it. This means when we eat seafood, we're also eating microplastics.

Occurrence in Salt and Other Foods

Microplastics aren't just in water and seafood. They're also in salt, honey, beer, and even canned foods. More than 70% of salt brands around the world have microplastics, especially sea salt. While processed foods seem to have fewer microplastics, their presence shows we could be eating them in all kinds of foods.

Estimating Exposure Through Food

Early guesses say an average adult in the US might eat up to 121,000 microplastic pieces each year. In Europe, it could be as high as 300,000 pieces when you add in things like water. Kids might be taking in even more for their size. These numbers could be too low because we haven't checked all foods yet. Even small amounts of microplastics over a long time could hurt our cells, cause swelling, and lead to other health issues. We need to do more research to really understand how much microplastics we're eating and what that means for our health. But it's clear that microplastics are in a lot of our food.

Mitigation Strategies

To lower the amount of microplastics in our food and surroundings, both regular people and big companies need to take action. Here are some ways to help reduce our exposure:

Consumer Strategies

As regular folks, we can do our part to cut down on microplastics in our meals and drinks:

  • Go for non-plastic options: Use glass, stainless steel, silicone, or bamboo instead of plastic for storing food, drinking water, etc.
  • Filter your water: Get a water filter that can catch tiny microplastics, like those with reverse osmosis or carbon block filters. The simpler pitcher filters might not do the trick.
  • Choose less plastic wrapping: Pick products with less plastic packaging, and say no to styrofoam. Remember to bring your own bags to the store.
  • Eat fewer seafood dishes: Since seafood, especially shellfish, often contains microplastics, eating less of it can help reduce your intake.
  • Grow some food at home: If you can, growing your own fruits and veggies can help you avoid microplastics from soil.
  • Support eco-friendly brands: Buy from companies that are trying to get rid of plastic packaging and microplastics. Your purchase choices matter.
  • Recycle right: Recycling keeps plastic from ending up in the ocean or landfills where it turns into microplastics.

Industry Strategies

Big companies also need to do their part to fight microplastic pollution:

  • Find new packaging solutions: Work on creating new materials for packaging that can break down naturally or be composted, instead of using plastic.
  • Make plastics last longer: Improve recycling programs and the way we collect plastics so they stay in use longer and don't end up as pollution.
  • Better filters: Put money into better filters for water and food processing that can catch the microplastics current methods miss.
  • Fund more research: Give money to more studies on how much microplastics are out there, how they're harmful, and ways to fix the problem.
  • Set your own strict rules: Instead of waiting for government rules, companies can start setting their own tough guidelines to reduce microplastic pollution.

By working together, both consumers and companies can help lower the risk of health problems from eating food contaminated with microplastics. But, it's going to take ongoing effort from everyone to find solutions that last.


Tiny plastic pieces, called microplastics, are a big worry because they're getting into our food and drinks. This article has shared some important points about how these plastics might be affecting our health.

Here's a quick recap:

  • We're finding microplastics in things like water, seafood, and salt. It looks like we might be eating over 100,000 of these tiny plastics every year without even knowing it.
  • When these plastics get into our bodies, they can cause harm like making our cells stressed out, causing swelling, and damaging our DNA. Because they're so small, they can mess with how our cells work.
  • Microplastics can also bring in bad chemicals and toxins into our bodies. We're still trying to figure out how bad this mix of stuff can be for us.
  • We really need to do more studies to understand how risky eating microplastics is. We also need better ways to find these plastics in our food.

To help cut down on microplastics in our food, we all can do something about it:

  • Try using things other than plastic for storing and handling food.
  • Make sure water and food are cleaned better to get rid of plastics.
  • Support businesses that are trying to use less plastic.
  • Help out by recycling more and better.

But since microplastics are everywhere, it's going to take a big team effort from everyone around the world to really solve this problem.

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