As everyone knows, the food we eat can be harmful to our health, whether it’s because we’re guzzling too many sugary beverages or munching too many artery-clogging snacks. Unfortunately, the packaging of the food we eat also can be harmful. The culprits: a variety of chemicals whose safety is hotly debated. “The root of the problem is an inadequate regulatory and policy framework for examining these chemicals before they’re put on the market,” the Natural Resources Defense Council says.
The council insists that chemical manufacturers should be required to demonstrate that a substance is safe before putting it in “everyday products” like food packaging. In the absence of such a requirement, some researchers continue to raise questions about the safety of food packaging. Consider, for instance, an analysis of fast-food packaging published in 2017 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Researchers from the Silent Spring Institute and other organizations tested more than 400 samples from 27 fast-food chains around the U.S. What they discovered was unappetizing: One-third of the samples — paper wrappers, paperboard and drink containers — contained fluorinated chemicals called PFAS's (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) or PFCs.
These chemicals are found in products like carpet, cookware and outdoor apparel as well as in food packaging. The Silent Spring Institute says some of the chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight and decreased fertility.
Among the samples that tested positive for fluorinated chemicals, 57 percent were from Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert or bread wrappers, 38 percent were for sandwiches and hamburgers, and 20 percent were paperboard containers (like the cardboard sleeves that hold french fries), as explained by Popular Science magazine. Paper cups were the only packages that got a clean bill of health.
The researchers noted that while major U.S. manufacturers are getting rid of “long-chain PFASs” in consumer products, they’re still present in products from other countries. They added that long-chain chemicals are being replaced with chemicals that have shorter carbon chains. “This difference in molecular structure makes these next-generation PFCs less likely to build up in the bodies of people and animals,” according to the Environmental Working Group.
However, even these next-generation chemicals might be unsafe for humans.
In response to the 2017 study of fast-food packaging, Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, the trade association for the North American food-packaging industry, touted the safety of food packaging. Dyer told Consumer Reports that all chemicals used in food packaging “go through rigorous testing to ensure that they meet stringent U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, providing the safe delivery of foods and beverages to consumers.”
While the presence of chemicals in fast-food packaging concerns researchers, they’re also worried about chemicals lurking in other food packaging.
One of the chemicals high on the hit list for food-packaging skeptics is bisphenol A (BPA).
The ongoing controversy over BPA recently garnered extra scrutiny. This scrutiny followed the February 2018 declaration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that BPA is safe for food packaging.
“Based on FDA’s ongoing safety review of scientific evidence, the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging,” the agency said. “People are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages.”
The FDA’s pronouncement met with a wave of criticism from environmental organizations, consumer groups and other critics. For instance, the Earth Day Network points out that many BPA-containing plastics are used for food and beverage storage, and says BPA is potentially harmful to our health. The organization cites a heightened risk of conditions such as cancer, early puberty, obesity, reproductive abnormalities and brain impairments.
“If food or drinks are stored in these plastics, they can be contaminated. If food is microwaved in these containers, chemicals like BPA can make their way into the food and into our bodies,” the Earth Day Network says.
For its part, the American Council on Science and Health maintains that the FDA’s statement supports the long-held belief of various pro-science groups that BPA “is completely safe,” and says environmental organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council are contributing to “plastic hysteria.”
If you’re convinced food packaging is generally dangerous or you’re uncertain whether this packaging safe, here are three ways you can stay in the clear, courtesy of MomsRising.org and Forbes.com:
1. Eat fresh food that’s not packaged.
This is not only good for your nutrition, but it’s good for your overall health. Plus, it’s better for the environment, as it reduces the amount of waste heading to landfills. A farmers’ market is a great place to achieve this goal while also bolstering the local economy.
2. Store food in glass or steel containers.
Using glass or steel containers decreases your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. It also means you’re producing less waste.
3. Ditch the fast-food packaging.
If you’ve got a hankering for a burger and fries from your favorite fast-food joint, ask that the burger and fries be served au naturel, free of wrappers or containers. Or you can simply skip the fast-food option altogether, and either dine at restaurants that serve meals on real plates or cook at home.