Cutting boards are one of the most commonly seen tools in the majority of households and restaurants. With continued use during food preparation like slicing, and chopping, they tend to wear down and show slash marks. These vary depending on whether such cutting boards are made up of rubber, bamboo, wood, or plastic.
As such, research indicates that certain plastic materials used in boards, including polypropylene and polyethylene, can “shed nano-and micro-sized flecks when cut with knives”, according to a May 2023 Environmental Science & Technology study published in PubMed. “Plastic chopping boards are identified as a substantial source of microplastics in human food, which requires careful attention,” it read.
Plastic cutting boards have raised concerns due to potential health hazards associated with the release of microplastics. As these boards age and wear down through use, tiny plastic particles, known as microplastics, can break off and contaminate food. “Research indicates that these microplastics can leach harmful chemicals, including endocrine disruptors, into the food being prepared,” warned Dr Kaushal Kishor Yadav, senior consultant and clinical lead – Surgical Oncology, Narayana Hospital, Gurugram.
The grooves and scratches on these boards, though seemingly harmless, create an ideal breeding ground for bacteria that can withstand typical cleaning methods. “Additionally, microplastics—tiny plastic particles measuring less than 5 millimeters—have discreetly entered both our environment and food chain,” said Manvi Lohia, MPH, RD, head of holistic health, and international business at Ekaanta.
According to Lohia, even thorough scrubbing with hot water and soap may prove insufficient to eliminate these concealed microbial residents.
While many plastic cutting boards are labelled as dishwasher safe, high temperatures in dishwashers can cause them to warp and develop more grooves, providing additional spaces for bacteria to hide, added holistic coach Dr Mickey Mehta.
The above-mentioned study compared five people’s chopping patterns and one person’s chopping on different materials with and without carrots. “From the results, the team calculated that food preparation could produce 14 to 71 million polyethylene microplastics and 79 million polypropylene microplastics from their respective boards each year. The estimates could vary, depending on the individual’s chopping style; the board material; the force needed to cut through foods; whether ingredients are roughly or finely chopped, and how often a cutting board is used.
“Studies have linked exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics to various health issues, such as hormonal imbalances and developmental problems. Moreover, once consumed, these microplastics may accumulate in the body over time, with long-term implications that are not yet fully understood,” said Dr Yadav.
In a 2019 study by the environmental charity WWF International, one may be ingesting five grams a week, the equivalent of eating a credit card. Yet another study showed plastic cutting boards release 15 mg microplastics per cut, totalling 50 g annually which is like 10 plastic credit cards.
To mitigate these concerns, some advocate for using alternative materials like wooden or bamboo cutting boards.
According to Dr Yadav, these materials are believed to be less prone to producing harmful microplastics. “Additionally, regular maintenance and replacing plastic cutting boards when they show signs of wear can help reduce the risk of contamination. Overall, while convenient, plastic cutting boards necessitate careful consideration to minimise potential health risks associated with microplastic exposure,” said Dr Yadav.
Lohia also feels that, despite their affordability and durability, plastic cutting boards harbour dangerous bacteria and pose a risk of cross-contamination during meat preparation. “To ensure culinary safety, I suggest individuals opt for wood or bamboo boards, known for their resilience against bacteria. Your kitchen choices are pivotal in safeguarding health, transforming it into a heaven of culinary delight without compromising safety,” Lohia said.