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Is Food Packaging Safe?

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Healthy food choices can involve more than the food itself. Is food packaging adding unwanted chemicals to our diet?

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Sep 27, 2016

Campbell's Soup

Many of us choose organic in order to avoid exposure to chemicals. But even our organic cheese and beans come in packaging that may leach chemicals into our pesticide-free food. What’s a health enthusiast to do?

What’s in Your Food Besides Food?

Numerous types of food packaging have the potential to leach compounds into your food. Take a look around your kitchen, and you’ll find plenty of materials to be concerned about. Even if you’re generally a “real food” kind of person, you probably have canned goods, cereals, pastas, and granola bars packaged in plastic bags, plastic wrap and plastic storage in your pantry.

Open the fridge and you’ll find beverages in plastic containers, cheese in plastic bags, containers, and wraps, as well as yogurt and other prepared foods in plastic containers of various sorts. Even in the freezer, you’ll likely find an array of plastic-wrapped items, including the home-grown berries you froze yourself. These plastics may contain BPA, BPS, and other endocrine-disrupting or carcinogenic chemicals.

Food in tupperware
The vast majority of food and beverage cans which appear to be made of metals like steel and aluminum in fact are lined with BPA, BPS or “regrettable substitutes” like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which contains the known carcinogen vinyl chloride. Your canned soup, soda, even seltzer or juice are likely exposing you to BPA and other compounds you’re better off not ingesting.

Even packaging made of apparently benign paper may be lined with chemicals of concern like PFASs, which can be found in pizza boxes and the wrapping of oily takeout food. Additional chemicals from fire retardants to BPA have worked their way into our paper packaging as laudable efforts to recycle paper have introduced an array of other contaminants.

How Do I Find Out What’s In Food Packaging?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has added yet another database to its arsenal of chemical information for consumers, allowing those who want to avoid exposure to toxins to check for BPA in their food packaging. They developed the database because they contend that “Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food – especially when it comes to an ingredient, such as BPA, that has been linked to cancer, infertility, brain, nervous system and cardiovascular abnormalities, diabetes, obesity and other serious disorders.”

It’s important to note, however, that the EWG database covers only BPA-containing products. A recent report by a coalition of nonprofits campaigning for safer chemicals found that 70% of cans are still lined with BPA. As awareness of the dangers of BPA has grown, some manufacturers have replaced BPA with other substances, while others have pledged to phase it out. The study authors note that “the lack of safety data and unknown additives mean we have no reliable data attesting to the safety of these compounds.”

According to a 2014 study, over 6000 chemical compounds are currently used in food packaging. Researchers found that 175 of these compounds are “chemicals of concern,” which means that scientific evidence has linked them to health effects like cancer or hormone disruption. Many of the thousands of other chemicals lack data that would let us determine their safety. Further, little is known about the substances produced when some of these chemicals break down in contact with food.

There’s no easy way for your average consumer to find out what their food is packed in, and little research demonstrating how much of these chemicals migrate into our food.

Eating More Safely in the Age of Chemicals

A whole-foods, unpackaged diet is your best defense against the chemicals in packaging. Since there are so many unknowns when it comes to packaging, your best bet is to avoid it when possible. Focus on whole foods, like fruits and vegetables from your garden, local farms, or your grocery store. Avoiding packaging is far better for the ecological footprint of your food, too.

Vegetables

How to reduce exposure to chemicals in packaging:

1. The less packaging the better. Challenge yourself to find unpackaged goods, whether that means fresh produce that’s not been bagged, or grains and nuts from the bulk section of your natural foods store. Bring your own glass jars to transport them home. Items like honey, nut butters, applesauce, and some vegetables can often be found in glass containers.

2. When possible avoid canned foods and drinks, plastic wrap, and plastic bottles. Choose glass when you can, and cook beans yourself rather than buying canned.

3. Do more of your own food preservation to lessen your exposure to packaging chemicals. Try dehydrating some of your garden’s harvest and storing it in glass jars. You can freeze in-season fruits and vegetables in glass also. Consider canning big batches of home-grown produce and you can skip the plastic-lined cans altogether.

4. Avoid putting hot food in plastic storage containers or heating foods packaged in plastic in the microwave. Plastics are far more likely to leach chemicals when heated. Experts recommend keeping plastics out of the dishwasher as well.

5. Rethink your drink. Skip bottled beverages when possible. Drink tap water or beverages you make yourself and serve them in glass or metal.

6. Store your food in glass. Put leftovers in glass containers, and use glass jars to freeze prepared foods. For items you prefer to wrap, try a reusable wrap rather than plastic.

7. Use reusable food storage bags. Cotton reusable bulk food storage bags are now available to provide you with safe food storage, and these bags are robust enough that you take them to the grocery and use them while shopping.

Apples in reusable produce bag
Honey
The good news is that we excrete many of these chemical substances very quickly. A 2011 study by the Silent Spring Institute put five families on a low-plastic diet for three days and found that their levels of BPA and a common phthalate fell by at least half. Those with the highest starting levels dropped up to 95%.

Avoiding these compounds completely may be nigh impossible in this day and age. Cheese and yogurt, for example, whether dairy-based or vegan are pretty much only available in plastic. Even if you want to make your own cheese or yogurt, the milk sold in reusable glass jars likely comes from dairy farms that use plastic tubing, which leaches small amounts of the chemicals it’s made of into the milk as it passes through. (Though if you have the time and energy, you could make your own nutmilk and craft cheese and yogurt from that!) Regardless, taking steps to cut some packaging from your life should reduce the amounts of these compounds you may be inadvertently consuming.

susannahshmurak

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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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