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Thankfully, more of us than ever are painfully aware of the dangers we face daily when we do something as natural as it gets — eating.
But how would you feel if, after you put in extra time shopping for organic foods at your grocer or making a special trip to the farmer’s market to get ‘clean’ food, you served it up on a dirty plate? You’d never knowingly do something like that, but guess what — it’s happening in kitchens all across America, and likely even yours.
How can you know? Go to your cabinets right now and take a look at your dishes. If any of them say on the back, “Not intended for Microwave use,” or were marketed as ‘indestructible,’ it’s made from melamine — a chemical used in plastics and many different types of coatings, but most famously for unbreakable plates.
The dirty risk to you? The melamine could be getting into your food and endangering your health.
In 2008 a scandal erupted in China when it was discovered that melamine was being put into milk powder. It was a cheap adulterant that improved food manufacturer’s bottom lines. However, its health effects were serious: It made 300,000 people sick, many with kidney stones. And 50,000 babies had to be hospitalized.
While it has been believed that a little melamine in tableware is a harmless way to make dishes unbreakable, research at the Kaohsiung Municipal Hsiao-Kang Hospital, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, shows that the tiny amounts that leach into food are, in fact, problematic. They threaten the health of your urinary tract and can lead to kidney problems.
The danger is linked to the fact that melamine escapes from plates and cups when they are subjected to high heat in a microwave oven or exposed to highly acidic foods like orange juice, vinegar or tomato products.
Even though most of these plates indicate they are not safe for the microwave, the message is often ignored. They’re a hard plastic so they don’t break, melt, blow-up or catch fire, in my experience, when placed in the microwave, so millions of people are unknowingly using them that way when they shouldn’t — I have been just as guilty. And I would have never thought that eating garden-fresh slices of tomato on a plate could be potentially hazardous.
The extreme high heat of microwaving can bring out the worst in a lot of things, the least worrisome being unpalatable microwave meals. But all joking aside, the last thing you want to worry about is increasing your exposure to dangerous toxins via your dinner plate.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to try not to eat off any plate or out of any container made with any type of plastic. In the Korean research, the scientists had their study participants eat off of stainless steel to avoid melamine. That of course, doesn’t work for foods you want to microwave as you shouldn’t put any kind of metal in a microwave oven. Ceramic or glass containers are much safer alternatives for heating foods and you may find they’re easier to clean when you microwave something a little too long and it burns.
But even with ceramics, you should exercise caution if plates and cups are chipped or otherwise obviously damaged. A spokesperson for the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorated Products says that “little crackles” or chips could mean that lead or other metals can leach out of ceramic plates and other containers. Just about any sign of visible wear on ceramic means it’s time to get new dishes.