Food and Microplastics: An Emerging Risk

Each year, World Environment Day focuses on raising public awareness of a particular environmental issue. This year it is celebrated under the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution” with the aim of calling for a reduction in the production of plastic, which every year contaminates the oceans and affects marine life and public health.

This day was celebrated last June 5th, where it became clear that we rely too much on single-use or disposable plastic, and that this has serious environmental consequences, but also affects our health. A new study by the American Chemical Society estimates that human intake of microplastics may reach 120,000 particles per year. That’s a very alarming number. Tania Mesa – Director of Neolife Nutrition and Nursing Unit Alejandro Monzó – Neolife Nutrition and Nursing Unit
The use of plastics raises health concerns in the food industry Each year, an average of eight million tons of plastic waste (usually single-use) reaches the planet’s oceans from coastal regions. In the water, sunlight and the ocean’s surf decompose these plastics into chunks the size of grains of rice. Moreover, tiny fragments and plastic fibers have spread throughout the planet and are found in deep ocean trenches and in the air we breathe (1). In recent research, microplastics have been found in over 114 aquatic species, and some studies have shown potential damage to reproductive systems and the liver (1). The Spanish Society of Epidemiology has stated that people accumulate toxic substances in their body for long periods of time and that this is related to the development of disorders and diseases (2). People are no exception and microplastics are present in the foods we eat. This is what a pilot study conducted by the Austrian Federal Environment Agency resoundingly concluded, after finding microplastics of 5 mm in the feces of the subjects being studied. The study involved three men and five women, aged between 33 and 65, from seven European countries and Japan. Participants prepared a meal diary for a week and then provided a stool sample for analysis. As a result, all samples tested positive for plastics. They all consumed food wrapped in plastic and drank bottled water; six of them did not eat fish and none were vegetarian (1.3). On the other hand, a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology of the American Chemical Society shows that traces of microplastics have already been found in foods such as fish, seafood, added sugars, alcohol, water, and even in the air. The authors conclude that inadvertent consumption of these substances is increasing and risks are still unknown (4). At the moment, these estimates are subject to large amounts of variation (additional data is still needed to assess the presence of microplastics in our environment), so the values obtained so far are underestimated. It is worth noting a recent review published in the journal Current Environmental Health, which describes the evidence regarding human exposure to microplastics through shellfish and the possible effects on human health (Figure 1). As a result, the message is clear, and humans consume microplastics. Seafood and other marine animals are of particular concern as they accumulate and retain plastics in their organisms (5). Additionally, they report that the toxicity associated with microplastic consumption will likely depend on size, the associated chemicals, and dose. Given the current concerns, last year the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU) carried out an analysis of 102 foods of marine origin, including: salt, mollusks (mussels, clams, and venus clams) and crustaceans (lobster, prawns, and shrimp). As a result, microplastics were detected in 68% of the food tested, mainly microfibers and microfilms (6). This data poses a threat and a public health concern. Despite not knowing the potential effects on human health, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) already considers it an emerging risk.
Figure 1. Representation of how microplastics end up on our plate (7).
In 2018, the European Parliament supported a European Union (EU) ban on specific single-use plastic products. These make up 70% of the waste that reaches the oceans and which have no substitutes nor plastics available (8). At the moment, the effect of microplastics on human health is still unknown. There is growing information from different sources on the exposure to microplastics, but studies show that they contain additives and other possibly toxic substances, which can be harmful to animals and humans (5, 7, 8). On a positive note, it seems that most microplastics stay in the fish gut and do not migrate to muscle tissue, which is what we eat. A report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that humans probably only ingest insignificant quantities of microplastics, even those who consume large quantities of mussels and oysters. It also points out that eating fish is beneficial and healthy, because it contains high levels of nutrients that are difficult to find in other foods, and also lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (9). However, it is still an alarming situation, one that concerns the scientific community because we lack the information on the effects on our health. Here at Neolife, we wish to convey that plastic has become a danger to the environment and to our health. Over 200 countries have committed to reducing the use of this polluting material by 2030, but each one of us is also part of the solution: We must be aware and change our consumption habits, for our health and our planet’s future. In terns of recommendations, here are some tips for supporting this initiative:
  • Plan your purchases and look for places where you can buy in bulk, be it fruit, vegetables, spices, legumes, nuts, among others.
  • Avoid buying individually packaged foods that are wrapped in plastic.
  • Take a reusable bag to the store or supermarket.
  • A good way to avoid direct exposure to microplastics is to gut fish before eating them.
  • Use a refillable water bottle instead of buying plastic bottles.
  • If you’re eating out, remember to take your own reusable cutlery and containers. That way you won’t need the disposable kind they give you when you order takeaway.
  • Use soap and deodorants that come in bars.
  • Choose products made with natural ingredients to keep plastic microfibers from ending up in the water.
  • If you do end up using plastic, separate it so it can be recycled (make sure you put it in the right bin).

BIBLIOGRAPHY (1) National Geographic. (2018). “Hallan por primera vez microplásticos en heces humanas” [In a first, microplastics found in human poop]. Environment. URL: (2) EFEAGRO. (2019). “El uso de plásticos preocupa al sector alimentario también por motivos de salud” [The use of plastics also raises health concerns in the food industry]. URL: (3) Gayá, V. (2019). “¿Sabes cuántos microplásticos ingieres en tu dieta?” [Do you know how many microplastics you’re eating in your diet?]. Alimente. El Confidencial. URL: (4) Cox, D.K. et. al. (2019). “Human consumption of microplastics”. Environ. Sci. American Chemical Society. URL: (5) Smith, M. et. al. (2018). “Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health”. Curr Environ Health Rep. Vol. 5(3): 375-386. URL: (6) OCU. (2018). “OCU halla microplásticos en el 68% de los alimentos analizados” [The OCU (Organization of Consumers and Users) finds microplastics in 68% of the food tested]. URL: (7) European Commission. (2017). “Microplastics: focus on food and health”. Joint Research Centre. URL: (8) European Parliament. (2018). “Microplastics: sources, effects and solutions”. URL: (9) FAO. (2017). “Microplastics in fisheries and aquaculture: status of knowledge on their occurrence and implications for aquatic organisms and food safety”. URL: