Melamine resins are used to make plastic kitchen utensils and shatterproof cups, bowls and plates, like those sold as picnic ware, and melamine dinnerware is often decorated with cartoon characters and sold as BPA-free alternatives for children. But a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine says it may leach from your dishes into your food.
In a small Taiwanese study, healthy young adults were asked to eat hot soup from melamine bowls and from ceramic bowls, before undergoing blood tests. Melamine levels in their bodies were less than 2 parts per billion after eating out of ceramic bowls, but they spiked to 8 parts per billion after eating out of the melamine bowls. The good news: These levels are still much lower than what the Food and Drug Administration considers safe (2,500 parts per billion).
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The researchers didn't examine whether the melamine from the bowls caused health problems, but similar levels have been linked to kidney stones in adults, says study author Ming-Tsang Wu, MD, ScD, of Kaohsiung Medical University.
Once in your body, melamine can harm your kidneys in two ways, says David S. Goldfarb, M.D., a kidney specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center and New York Harbor Veterans Affairs Medical Center who wasn't involved with the study. First, it forms crystals that could eventually become kidney stones. And in high enough doses, it becomes toxic, destroying kidney tissue. "Exactly how isn't really clear—but it doesn't belong in your kidneys," he says.
While the biggest risk isn't for you—it's for children and pregnant women, because developing kidneys are more susceptible to damage, Dr. Wu says—you can still take steps to avoid your exposure:
• Keep it cool. "The key point is 'temperature,'" Dr. Wu says. Storing fruit at room temperature in a melamine bowl is probably fine, but don't serve acidic or warm foods or liquids in it (use glass or ceramic instead), and definitely don't microwave it. Both acid and heat cause more melamine to migrate from the dishes to your meal, with the greatest risk at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
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• Ditch the melamine. If you're looking for something shatterproof, look for enameled dinnerware (made from enamel-coated steel). It's often sold at camping-supply stores because, in addition to being durable, it's also lightweight. You can find it online from Golden Rabbit, which sells both adult-oriented designs and cute kid-friendly plates decorated with the likes of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-duck and other classic nursery rhyme characters.