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Surprising health rewards of cutting down on plastic

Ditching plastic food packaging isn’t just better for the health of our planet, it can help us be healthier too. Dietitian Juliette Kellow explains.

People are starting to realise the benefits of limiting the amount of single-use plastic we use. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into our oceans each year, damaging seabirds, fish, whales, seals, dolphins, sharks and sea turtles.

That’s a truckload of plastic being dumped into the waters every minute and, it’s estimated, by 2050, the weight of plastic in the sea will be greater than the weight of fish. Plastic debris is also broken down into tiny pieces called ‘microplastics’, which can end up in the food chain and, ultimately, on our plate.

Among the biggest polluters are drink bottles and food packaging that’s only used once before being ditched. According to Greenpeace, UK supermarkets alone generate 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year.

Closer to home, it was previously thought ocean currents around the Antarctic protected it from the plastic polluting the world’s oceans. However, a 2018 Greenpeace expedition found microplastics present in both water and snow samples. Plastic has now been found in all of our oceans, from the north pole to the south pole and in the deepest point of the ocean.

What’s being done

It can feel as if we have no choice when so many food products are wrapped in plastic (it doesn’t help that recycling rules vary from council to council). Supermarkets are, however, starting to take steps.

  • Both Foodstuffs, which includes the New World, PAK’nSAVE and Four Square brands, and Countdown stopped providing single-use plastic carrier bags in 2018.
  • Countdown says, from their stores, this will remove around 350 million bags from circulation each year.
  • Countdown also removed plastic straws from their shelves in 2018.
  • Plastic microbeads have been banned by the Government since June 2018, with Foodstuffs enforcing the ban a full year before that.
  • Supermarkets now use recyclable meat trays and are working on removing and reducing plastic and packaging from across their businesses.
  • Unfortunately, supermarket soft plastics collection scheme was suspended in December 2018. It’s hoped this will resume soon with different ways to recycle these plastics.

There are choices we can make as individuals, too, that have the bonus of kick-starting healthier eating habits.

Here are our top 15 ways to cut down on plastic and have a healthier diet:

Surprising health plastic rewards

1 Go loose with whole fruit and veges

A lot of fresh produce in supermarkets comes packaged in plastic containers, bags or wrap, especially if it’s been chopped or sliced. Buying it loose helps cut down on these, and there are now reusable mesh or string bags available for putting your fruit and veges in. If you do need to use the plastic bags provided, you could reuse them (just pop them back in your reusable bag for next time).

Health benefits

Buying loose fruit and veges means you can choose how ripe you want your produce and purchase the exact amount you need. This helps to reduce waste and ensures nutrients end up in your body rather than in the bin.

Prepping them yourself, rather than buying them sliced or chopped in a pack, means they retain more nutrition. Water-soluble nutrients, such as vitamin C and folate, are sensitive to oxygen, so when fruit and veges are cut and exposed to air, these start to break down. Glucosinolates in green leafy veges, such as broccoli and cabbage, are also damaged. One study found these compounds declined by up to 75 per cent over six hours in veges that had been finely shredded.

2 DIY ready meals

Ready meals often come in plastic packaging, some of which is hard to recycle. And many ready meals are high in kilojoules, saturated fat and salt while being low in veges and, often, low in protein too. We can all help by cooking and freezing simple meals in big batches to use later, instead. Also, ask your favourite brands to switch to sustainable packing.

Health benefits

We have control over what goes into our meals so we can limit saturated fat and salt, while boosting our protein, fibre and veges. There are hundreds of fast recipes ready in 20 minutes or less.

3 Limit sugary, fast-carb treats

Many sweet foods, including cakes, croissants and frozen desserts, have plastic packaging of some sort. And baking your own means you can enjoy the taste while reducing plastic, as many common baking ingredients, such as flour and sugar, come in paper packaging, and eggs come in cardboard boxes.

Health benefits

Homemade treats give you more control over the ingredients you use, for example, you can fill cakes with fresh fruit or use less sugar. Baking your own means you can come up with clever ways to reduce kilojoules, saturated fat and sugar, and it usually tastes better too!

4 Make your own sandwiches

We love sandwiches, but some cafés and petrol stations sell them in plastic cling wrap or a moulded plastic container rather than, or even in addition to, a paper bag. We can bypass the packaging completely by making our own sandwiches.

Health benefits

You can choose higher-fibre wholegrain bread, choose avocado or hummus instead of spreads or butter, opt for lower-sat fat and lower-salt fillings, such as tuna, chicken or egg, add plenty of veges and choose reduced fat mayo. Pop sandwiches into a reusable container or wrap, such as a beeswax wrap.

5 Make your own cuppa

It isn’t just plastic lids and, sometimes, plastic stirrers that make takeaway hot drinks an environmental problem. Most cups are a combo of paper and plastic, which makes them heat and leakproof, but also difficult to recycle. When getting a takeaway coffee, aim to use a reusable keep-cup. Better still, make your own and have better control of what you’re drinking.

Health benefits

You could dramatically reduce kilojoules, saturated fat and any added sugar and avoid the temptation to have bigger portions or add chocolate, syrups, whipped cream or sprinkles to your drink. For example, a 400ml latte with standard milk has 600kJ and 4.5g sat fat. Make it trim and it’s 400kJ with 0.5g sat fat.

On the other hand, a mug of homemade coffee with trim milk has around 60kJ and no sat fat.

6 Swap cola for eau de tap

It’s a no-brainer! It’s estimated, throughout the world, we buy one million plastic bottles every minute to drink on the go. It’s important to stay hydrated, but it’s more environmentally friendly to fill a reusable container with tap water and take it with you.

Health benefits

Tap water is a better choice for our waistline and teeth than sugary drinks – a 330ml bottle of regular Coca-Cola has 594kJ and around seven teaspoons of sugar.

7 Choose olive oil

Many oils come in plastic bottles, but olive and other quality oils usually come in glass bottles. This is because plastic doesn’t protect well against light or heat, which can start to break down compounds in olive oil, affecting shelf life. Nutritionally, olive oil is one of the best choices, too.

Health benefits

Olive oil contains more monounsaturated fats than most other oils, making it a heart-friendly choice. Extra virgin olive oil also contains more plant polyphenols than other oils, especially hydroxytyrosol, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

8 Grow your own herbs

It’s great to use fresh herbs to flavour food in place of salt, but if you find yourself regularly buying them in packs, it’s worth growing them in pots on a sunny window sill instead. Other flavourings that don’t involve plastic include fresh garlic, chilli and ginger, fresh lemon and lime juices, tomato purée in metal tubes or glass jars, wine, beer and cider in glass bottles and pepper and dried spices in glass jars (they can have plastic lids, but can be refilled). If you do buy wrapped fresh herbs, keep them fresh for as long as possible.

Health benefits

Having your own supply will encourage you to use them. The more herbs and spices you use, the less likely you are to rely on salt, which can increase blood pressure over time and put heart health at risk.

9 Eat your juice

Juice usually comes in plastic bottles or cartons that are typically made from 75 per cent paper, 5 per cent foil and 20 per cent plastic. Individual cartons can also come with a plastic straw wrapped in yet more plastic, so why not eat whole fruit instead.

Health benefits

We used to count a small glass of fruit juice as one of our five plus a day, but that changed when the World Health Organization published its report of sugar intakes in 2015, classifying fruit juice as free sugars, along with honey and white sugar. Even though fruit juice contains natural sugars, these are squeezed out of the cells rather than contained within them, as is the case with whole fruit. This makes the sugars more accessible and damaging to teeth. Whole fruit is higher in fibre and nutrients, as juices don’t contain the fibre-rich pulp and skin. Studies also suggest fluids don’t fill us up as much as solids, so drinking juice won’t be as satisfying as eating a whole piece of fruit.

10 Have meat as a treat

Whether it’s a joint of lamb, a tray of mince or a pack of ham, most meat from supermarkets comes in plastic. Buying from a butcher reduces plastic trays, although not necessarily plastic wrapping. See if your butcher is willing to pop meat into your own reusable container – it’s a change taking place in some stores overseas.

Health benefits

If you eat a lot of meat, reducing the amount can help protect against bowel cancer. Replacing some meat with beans, lentils or chickpeas boosts fibre while providing protein and non-haem iron.

11 Have breakfast at home

Make a healthy breakfast of eggs in mere minutes and avoid grabbing that on-the-go bar in a plastic wrapper or an individual pot of porridge or cereal with a plastic lid.

Most eggs come in recyclable cardboard boxes, too.

Health benefits

Not only do eggs keep you feeling full for longer, but they’re packed with protein, B vitamins, vitamin A, phosphorus, selenium, iodine, zinc and iron.

They also provide choline, a nutrient needed for making a neurotransmitter that aids brain function and memory.

First published: Mar 2019



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