When you think about moving or setting up housekeeping you are always reminded how dishes can break. Opening a box of dishes or glassware that has been dropped can be heartbreaking. When it has happened, there always seems to be a good case for buying plastic dishes; indeed, there are people who never spend money on pricey tableware for that very reason.
Then today as I was surfing happily through the Internet, I came upon an article that stopped my page-clicking dead. A group of studies conducted in the United Kingdom, the United States and China shows that melamine, commonly used to produce "plastic" dishes and other tableware, can leach chemicals into food.
Here's how it happens. Say you inherit some fine old china from your grandmother. The little cracks and crazes on the surface are a testament to its age and use. Maybe you remember Thanksgiving or other Holiday dinners served to you and the family on these lovely old dishes. But if you look closely, you will see that the surface cracks--some caused by heat exposure and others caused by the friction of implements on the glaze of each dish--are slightly discolored from food or liquid that they have absorbed through these little breaches of their smooth glazed surface. Crazes on teacups will leave the light-brown stains from tea or coffee, and so on.
Melamine is no different. Over time, the abrasion of knives, forks and spoons makes very small breaches in the smooth surface of the melamine, or Melmac as it is frequently called. As the article from Reuters says:
"...researchers, whose results appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine, warned that their findings don't prove that melamine is harmful to people in the amounts detected when study participants ate hot soup from melamine bowls. Large doses of melamine, which is used in some types of fertilizer and in resin used to make tableware, killed six babies in China and sent thousands more to the hospital with kidney damage in 2008. In high enough quantities, melamine can cause kidney stones and other kidney problems in adults.
"Melamine tableware may release large amounts of melamine when used to serve high-temperature foods," wrote lead researcher Chia-Fang Wu from Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan.
"For the study, six people in their 20s ate hot soup for breakfast out of melamine bowls, while another six ate soup from ceramic bowls. Then, the researchers monitored participants' urine for the next twelve hours. Three weeks later, the two groups were reversed. For the rest of the day, the total melamine excreted in study volunteers' urine was 8.35 micrograms following a melamine bowl breakfast, compared to 1.31 micrograms after breakfast from a ceramic bowl.
"The study didn't measure any health effects possibly related to melamine, and it's not clear if those urine levels would lead to any long-term medical problems or if participants' bodies were storing any of the chemical. Craig Langman, who studies kidney diseases at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said that while the study raises interesting questions and concerns, it didn't prove anything. But he also said that research into the chemical's long-term biological effects should continue."
I agree; long-term studies are certainly indicated, since this chemical compound is made up of (according to Wikipedia):
"Melamine resin or melamine formaldehyde (also shortened to melamine) is a hard, thermosetting plastic material made from melamine and formaldehyde by polymerization. In its butylated form, it is dissolved in n-butanol and xylene. It is then used to cross-link with alkyd, epoxy, acrylic, and polyester resins, used in surface coatings. There are many types, varying from very slow to very fast curing. It was initially discovered by William F. Talbot..."
Okay, hold on--this stuff is made of formaldehyde and contains epoxy, acrylic and polyester? Six babies died? Hang on, I don't think I want to scratch this substance and allow it to come in contact with acid solutions like spaghetti sauce, am I right?
I think I am, because the Reuters article also says:
"Melamine is approved in the United States for use in the manufacturing of some cooking utensils, tableware, plastics and industrial coatings, among other things. It is likely more common in other countries, including China. 'American exposure from tableware must be astonishingly small, or not at all,' Langman added. '(But) because of the Chinese poisoning epidemic, we have to entirely vigilant all the time about our food supply.'
"Anyone who has a choice might as well avoid buying tableware made with melamine, because it does interact with some acidic foods and in the microwave. 'If you can avoid it, why use it?' he said."
I think we need to err on the side of caution with this. Exposure to microwave--which creates internal heat--and hot food, not to mention abrasion by eating utensils, can unleash chemical compounds that leach into your food--compounds that are not present in glass, pottery and ceramic.
So I don't care whether you want to go with ceramics like Corning Ware, glass in plain or fancy shapes and colors, pottery or porcelain, you will be reasonably sure that your dishes won't poison you. I have noticed, when shopping in places like Walmart in Tucson, that Corning Ware is now available in high-end and low-end sets, some of them quite eye-catching. You can also get plain glass dishes at Walmart, by the way.
Another place that I would spend a few hundred dollars in a heartbeat would be the most beautiful classic white porcelain at Crate & Barrel, which is available at the La Encantada Mall at the northern end of Campbell in Tucson. And if you don't want to that far up the street there is always Bed, Bath & Beyond where you'll find the biggest selection of dishes that I know of in town.
Martha Stewart's collection of rich, over-sized tableware is exclusive to K Mart, which also carries her co-ordinated flatware in stainless steel. I have also bought tableware at Super Target, where I found some cutting-edge things that were quite jazzy.
That doesn't even begin to cover the field if you are a catalog shopper, but what if you would prefer to spend less rather than more money? I will share a secret with you. At Tucson's Food City stores they carry simple earthenware with various colored rims (blue, green, red, brown around the edges) for less than a dollar a piece. That means four dollars for four soup bowls, and so forth. I don't think you can do any better than that in town, and my husband buys them because he doesn't want to get scolded when he breaks dishes (it isn't that often). He also prefers bowls to plates.
I bought my last two sets of dishes at Fry's Marketplace and Walmart. I have never seen anything prettier than the earth-toned Gold Deco set that I got at the Marketplace, which you can see in my illustration. I shop quite a bit online, so living in Tucson would never give me the impression that I have limited choices. And for great reproductions of rare and vintage glass dinnerware, by the way, check out the Vermont Country Store online.
So, bottom line: phase out Melmac dishes and make sure that your patio-ware isn't made of it. Pure plastic is fine if you are eating outdoors and don't want things to get broken. We are putting them away by now since the summer is over, and it's time to check out Fiesta Ware or the antique shops or anything else that gladdens your heart.