Fancy Tea Bags Could Be Contaminating Your Cup With Billions of Microplastics

muzzyco/iStock via Getty Images
muzzyco/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to good consumer habits, numerous (and often conflicting) reports have people questioning everything from their coffee drinking to their phone usage, but until recently, curling up with a warm mug of tea seemed OK. A new study may change that. As the CBC reports, certain types of tea bags could deposit billions of microplastic particles into your tea.

Nathalie Tufenkji, who teaches chemical engineering at McGill University in Montreal, was inspired to investigate the plastic content of tea after ordering the hot beverage from a coffee shop one day. Instead of a classic, compostable paper tea bag, her tea leaves came bundled in a pouch made from a silken material. The item was actually made from plastic, and it was an example of the "fancy" teabags made from nylon and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) that are gaining popularity with certain tea brands.

So what does that mean for your morning cup of tea? According to the researchers' study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, steeping one of these bags in hot water can release up to 11.6 billion microplastic particles and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into your drink. Microplastics are miniscule plastic bits no biggest than a dust mote, and nanoplastics are even smaller. Even with billions of them swirling in your teacup, the particles add up to a total plastic content of just one-sixtieth of a milligram.

Microplastics aren't limited to fancy tea bags. Seafood, table salt, and even tap water all contain tiny pieces of plastic. We consume so much of it that one study found we're excreting 20 particles of the stuff per every quarter pound of waste. But even in a world where microplastics are unavoidable, the numbers in this recent study are noteworthy: Tea made from the plastic tea bags studied contains thousands of times more plastic that what has been observed in other food products.

The study indicates that the plastic content of some teas is high, but it doesn't say what that means for your health. That's because no evidence yet shows microplastics are harmful to humans when ingested. It's possible that the adverse health effects will become more apparent as the current population ages, but it's also possible that the human body deals with microplastics the same way it deals with other environmental toxins.

The tea bag study also comes with some caveats: The researchers looked at only four tea bags (and an additional four were used as controls), so a larger sample size may have revealed that this level of microplastic content isn't found in all tea made from plastic-based bags. If you'd still prefer to avoid mixing plastic with hot beverages, look for tea brands that use biodegradable paper and steer clear of pyramid-shaped bags and other pouches made from silky mesh material. Not only are paper bags lower in plastic contaminants, but they also add less waste to the environment.

[h/t CBC]

The Most Popular Christmas Cookie in Each State

Jen Tepp/iStock via Getty Images
Jen Tepp/iStock via Getty Images

While opinions about peppermint bark, reindeer corn, and other Christmas candies are important enough to warrant a map of their own, we all know that the real crown jewel of any kitchen counter during the holidays is an enormous platter of homemade cookies.

In a festive endeavor to guess which type of cookie is most likely to be on your counter this Christmas, General Mills collected search data from BettyCrocker.com, Pillsbury.com, and Tablespoon.com, and created a map that shows which recipes are clicked most often in each state.

Those universally adored Hershey Kiss-topped peanut butter cookies, known on Betty Crocker’s website as Classic Peanut Butter Blossoms, took the top spot in seven states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, and Wyoming. And people don’t just love peanut butter in blossom form—Easy Peanut Butter Cookie Cups, Peanut Butter-Chocolate Cookies, and 2-Ingredient PB-Chocolate Truffles also made appearances on the list.

general mills christmas cookies map
General Mills

Peanut butter treats are definitely a popular choice among holiday bakers in general, and cookie decorators are likely responsible for the prevalence of plain old sugar cookies across the nation. Sugar Cookie Cutouts, Easy Spritz Cookies, and Easy Italian Christmas Cookies all offer a deliciously blank slate for your artistic aspirations.

Apart from peanut butter- and plain sugar-based desserts, the rest of the results were pretty scattered. Iowa most often opts for the figure eight-shaped Swedish Kringla, while Michigan loves a good jam-filled Polish Kolaczki. Surprisingly, Hawaii was the only state to choose gingerbread cookies as their seasonal favorite.

If you’re thinking classic chocolate chip cookies are suspiciously absent from this map altogether, you have great dessert-related detective skills: General Mills decided to omit them from the study, since they’re Betty Crocker’s most-searched cookie recipe all year long, and they would’ve dominated in a staggering 22 states.

Whether you’re looking for a new show-stopping cookie recipe or just wondering how your long-standing family traditions compare to others’, you can read more on the study—and see all the recipes in full—here.

[h/t General Mills]

Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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