This subject has been a big ol’ bee in my bonnet for a long time, especially since the Keurig style coffee systems are now ubiquitous. Much focus in recent years has revolved around the studies of potential dangers of BPA, or bisphenol A, but what about the myriad of other chemicals commonly used in plastics, demonstrated to also have damaging effects in the body? Now that BPA has been in the spotlight, many companies in the U.S. have been obliged to remove it from their products so that they can market them as “BPA free” and use alternate plastic ingredients instead. However, other chemicals in food-grade plastics have been shown to have even greater estrogenic and disruptive effects than that of BPA.
Here is an interesting NPR article and audio concerning how estrogenic chemicals are found in the majority of plastic items found in food and beverage packaging.
NPR article- Most Plastics Leach Estrogen-like Chemicals
The short story is this- plastics are very much a part of modern life, and some have been designated safe for use in food and beverage packaging. Their safety profile has been well documented in controlled lab studies, and only small amounts of plastic chemicals have been demonstrated to leach into food or beverages in lab safety studies for “common use.” So for storage of non-acidic, cooled food and drink items, contamination levels are minimal and not much to worry about. However, when plastics are exposed to hot water or foods, acidic food ingredients, UV light, mechanical wear and tear, or any combination of these factors (the stuff that can happen with actual use)- the amount of leaching have been shown in studies to increase exponentially by a thousand-fold and more per use. Have you ever tasted water from a bottle left in your car on a hot day? Snack food after it has been toted around in a plastic bag? It tastes bad, like plastic, right? Because that is exactly what you are ingesting.
(for more more details about types of plastics, references for how they leach into beverages and foods, and tips for safe selection and use- you can check out one of my previous articles: Plastic Water Bottles: How Safe Are They?)
So, we do our best to avoid putting hot beverages and food leftovers into plastic containers (glass, stainless steel and food-safe designated ceramics are much better choices.) But now there are K-cups- a fresh cup of plastic, er- I mean coffee, brewed into your mug every day. Combine hot water temperatures and the acidic qualities of coffee and now there’s a chance to spike leaching and chemical contamination to new heights. In studies, common plastic chemicals have been shown to interfere with healthy metabolism, promote breast tumor growth in animals as well as in human cells, significantly reduce sperm counts, increase obesity, and other disturbing effects. And these are just the short term use studies, very little is known about the long term effects of consuming these substances in low doses day in, day out for years and years. And, because K-cups can’t be recycled, there is no recycling code on them to even tell us which chemicals are in the plastic containers- their ingredients are completely hidden from consumers. Research is non-existent to ascertain their safety over years of use. So if we already have safer choices at hand, and demand is ultimately what drives the types of products manufactured, why not just use safer alternatives now?
We already have a lot of choices to navigate when it comes to maintaining our health, but it might be worth questioning where to draw the line on convenience versus safety. While hot coffee paired with plastic might be a relatively small detail to consider in life, the evidence nonetheless shows an insidious potential for harm on many levels. Environmental exposures to estrogenic compounds are already a clear and present burden on our bodies and will continue to affect generations to come. However, if making simple changes today can decrease your overall exposure, isn’t it worth it? Corporations and product innovation will follow our lead, and our dollars are the votes.
By all means, please enjoy the culinary and health benefits of consuming coffee, but be selective in the equipment that you use, and demand safety first as a consumer. Your body will thank you.
In response to many inquiries, I researched and found the following stainless steel, reusable K-Cup device available on Amazon that is highly reviewed (make sure to select the Stainless Steel Elite option):
In Canada? You can find it here.
This device cuts down significantly on the amount of plastic surface area that your hot water and brewing coffee will contact, improving safety (and taste, according to reviewers). It still routes water through a BPA-free plastic “dispersion cone” within the lid of the device (I can’t find anything that eliminates this), but it does not encapsulate the coffee grounds in plastic while steeping, like a k-cup does. It reduces waste in landfills, and will save you bundle of money in the long run by not paying a fortune for single use containers- estimated at $50- $124 per pound according to this NY Times article.
For those who do not want to give up the convenience of disposable cups, you could also consider a single use, paper filter system. This has a small plastic ring at the top to secure it into place, but also greatly reduces plastic to hot water contact during brew time. This is a well-reviewed brand of organic coffee in a 97% biodegradable cup:
You could choose to avoid all plastic throughout the coffee-maker system. One way is to use a porcelain pour-through filter with unbleached paper filters in the same size. They even make these in single sizes that pop right onto your mug:Porcelain #2 Coffee Dripper / Filter Cone. Starbucks also makes a good one. Or try a French press with steel and/or glass construction- a favorite among coffee aficionados. They even make single-serve size French Press mugs.
If you like your coffee with some serious kick, you might also consider a percolator with all stainless steel components. It is still fast and convenient with 1 cup per minute brew time and you control the amount that you need. It recirculates the water through the grounds as it percolates, so just be aware that the percolator’s make a much stronger and fuller-tasting coffee than modern single cup dispensers.
Update: 04/04/14- please see my short post about the flood of disposable plastic trash that now swirls in massive ocean gyres: Mired in Gyres: Signs of a “Throw Away Culture”
Update: 03/04/15: See the recent Atlantic article, “A Brewing Problem,” in which K-cup inventor regrets ever inventing the K-cup, and does not use it himself. Interesting note within, if all K-cups sold in 2014 were laid end-to-end, they would encircle the Earth more than 10 times.
Author: Dr. Rivard is a licensed naturopathic doctor (N.D.) and owner of Seasons Natural Healthcare, LLC in southern NH. (And I love a good cup of espresso or coffee, brewed the old fashioned way.)