Aluminum smelters belch, but foil beats plastic

Rating: NNNNN Q. I've heard that aluminum is bad for me. Should I be getting rid of my aluminum foil?.

Rating: NNNNN

Q. I’ve heard that aluminum is bad for me. Should I be getting rid of my aluminum foil?

A. You can run but you can’t really escape it. It’s in our soil, water, air and, yes, even food. A lot of this is naturally occurring, but we also put everything from beans to beer in aluminum cans, and traces can be found in things like baking powder, antacids, buffered aspirin and hemorrhoid meds.

We actually consume about 10 grams of aluminum a day, and most of that comes from food, says Health Canada, which adds that less than 1 per cent is actually absorbed by the body. Pots and pans give us 1 or 2 grams daily. Foil, I imagine, accounts for much less, unless you’re baking off it at every meal and sucking on the stuff. (It’s also used by a select few to shield themselves from alien mind control. They even have aluminum foil hat competitions. Don’t ask.)

Aluminum has been tied to Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson’s, as well as anemia and glucose intolerance. So, should you stop using aluminum foil and trays? Health Canada says, “Studies have shown that the amount of aluminum that leaches from aluminum cookware and aluminum foil into food is generally negligible.” Did anyone else catch the word “generally” in there? Leafy foods and acidic ones like citrus and tomatoes absorb the most, says Health Canada. And the longer food is stored or simmered in aluminum, the more of the metal it’ll suck up.

As for the planet’s health, well, as you’d predict, mining aluminum (or bauxite ore) ain’t pretty: vegetation is stripped, habitat lost, soil eroded. Things get really ugly at the refining stage. Since aluminum smelting is so damn energy-intensive, it’s often situated near cheap and dirty power sources. A third of that is coal-fired, and half comes from large, destructive dam projects.

And those smelters give as much as they take, emitting about 95 million tonnes of greenhouse gases industry-wide in 2005 and dumping massive amounts of caustic waste called red mud.

The good news is that aluminum foil sheets and containers are 100 per cent recyclable. Aluminum is actually the most recycled metal on earth. And the industry says that a third of all aluminum in use comes from recycled sources.

You can really scrub your conscience clean by getting 100 per cent recycled foil, called If You Care, from health stores like Whole Foods on Avenue Road and Big Carrot on Danforth. Ninety-five per cent less energy goes into making the Scandinavian import than non-recycled foil ( Environmental Defense, by the way, advises the use of tin foil over plastic wrap any day.

That’s true for all recycled aluminum products, so all you urban myth circulators trashing the recycling of aluminum cans because it takes more energy to recycle them than it does to make new ones are flat-out wrong. The energy wasted by not recycling more aluminum products is the problem. Of course, the epoxy resin lining in many aluminum food cans that may leach hormone-disrupting Bisphenol A is another problem.

FYI, if you’re wondering why one side of aluminum foil is shiny and one side’s matte, that’s because two sheets are pressed together and pass through flattening rollers at the same time. The side touching the rollers gets shiny.

Scrap that explanation, however, if you’ve bought Reynolds non-stick aluminum foil. In that case, the company says the matte side is coated with an undisclosed “food-safe” non-stick something or other that it says is completely unrelated to Teflon. Of course we used to think Teflon was food-safe, too.

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