Do you use chopsticks?
I do, thanks to my Chinese roots, culture, and love for East Asian cuisines (Japanese and Korean rank among my top three favorites, Italian being the other). I also happen to love noodle soups the most, and we definitely use chopsticks there.
If you, like me, frequently eat out at Chinese or Japanese restaurants, you’ll be familiar with the ubiquitous wooden or bamboo chopsticks that are beige in color and are usually found en masse in that translucent plastic packaging (for Chinese restaurants) or the restaurant’s own paper packaging (for Japanese restaurants). News flash: these chopsticks are dangerous to your health!
According to a 2014 article by the Shanghai Daily, a 2005 one by the Association for Asian Research, and others, the reason these chopsticks look so clean and pale is because they’re treated with sulfur and hydrogen peroxide (according to SD) or sulfur dioxide (according to AFAR) – in any case, sulfur, which we know is hazardous to our health, is used. These chemicals are used to “clean” the chopsticks of germs and to bleach them white so that they look clean and presentable.
According to AFAR, reliable manufacturers use good-quality wood that don’t need much bleaching; however, others use low-quality wood that would need more bleaching, thereby more chemicals. However, in the same report, a craftsman with years of experience in the wood industry says that most disposable chopsticks are made of the latter type, sources of which include the waste materials from making other higher-quality wooden materials.
In any case, we know two things: these chopsticks are poisonous to us, and they’re one-time things made of wood, a resource whose continued harvest is increasingly becoming dangerous to our future. Says a report from Snopes.com, in 1984 in Japan alone, 12 billon pairs had been used and consequently discarded, while in 2001 in China alone, that figure was up to 45 billion pairs. I wonder how many trees could have been saved from the chainsaw with those numbers…
The same source says that while it admits there are harmful chemicals in these chopsticks, they are not carcinogenic. Regardless, hydrogen peroxide is corrosive (and can, in the most extreme cases, lead to DNA damage), while sulfur dioxide can harm parts of the respiratory and digestive systems.
I heard all of these from my best friend’s mom on the eve of my Taiwan trip with my best friend and his grandmother (the mom’s mom). As such, my mom gave us three pairs of plastic chopsticks (the type you get from the Japanese vacuum jar lunchboxes) to use in Taipei, where a lot of restaurants use chopsticks. Today, I use a metal pair, and it’s interesting how I came to do so: not out of this desire to avoid the wooden, disposable chopsticks (I’m anti-disposable), but because Korean restaurants use metal spoons and chopsticks (the set of these utensils together is called sujeo [수저], a portmanteau of “spoon” and “chopsticks” in Korean, respectively 숟가락 sutgarak and 젓가락 jeotgarak). But now that I’ve heard all these, I have even more reason to avoid those chopsticks.
So what’s the solution? Bring along a pair of plastic or metal chopsticks along with you wherever you go, or reusable wooden ones like the ones sold at Daiso. I do so, as well as a spoon and fork in case we eat at restaurants that serve only disposables, like McDonald’s. As a last resort, should you find yourself at a restaurant that uses only these wooden chopsticks and you forgot to bring your own, then ask for a glass of hot water and dip the chopsticks in them for about 20 minutes (1 hour in cold water). Of course, don’t drink said water anymore.
Now, all this talk is making me hungry for some sushi…