Migrating Chemicals Through Food Packaging

Food Packaging Chemicals


Chemicals that Migrate into Food Through Packaging

Knowing the sources of toxins present in food consumed everyday will help us know how to avoid them and keep us safe from potential harm. Food contaminants can come from a wide range of sources which can be categorized into three main groups: biological, physical and chemical contamination. The latter includes pesticides (such as DDT and glyphosate), heavy metals and plastic additives that can actually seep into food through processing and storage methods.

In addition to the environmental problems that plastic creates, plastic affects the quality of food due to the presence of chemicals in the materials used in packaging. These chemicals can cause numerous health risks for consumers of all ages, especially children. The health problems associated are caused by the accumulation (or build up) of chemicals that store into our body's tissues after consumption. Over time these concentrations of chemicals cause damage to our cells, resulting in a range of health effects like gastrointestinal issues, multiple forms of cancer, reproductive problems and hepatic, renal and neurological disorders.

The Four Enemies of Food Packaging

There are four enemies of food packaging: light, oxygen, time, and heat. These are the culprits of chemicals migrating into food from their packaging, or making food or beverages taste like their packaging. Have you ever taken a big gulp of a water bottle that’s been sitting in a car for too long? If you have, you’ve experienced the foul change of taste caused by time, light and heat. When any of the enemies of food packaging are combined with a food item wrapped in plastic material, it causes the plastic to start altering in form or degrading. During these processes, plastic releases potent chemical compounds, resulting in the chemicals to leak into the food product.

Types of Plastic and Additives

There are different types of plastic, but the most common types of plastic used in food packaging are high/low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Other plastic types with high demand are polystyrene (PS), and expandable PS, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Many different additives are used in plastic manufacturing to give plastic it’s various properties like flexibility, durability, color, or resistance to water. Some examples of additives used in plastic include phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), formaldehyde, styrene, and other active organic compounds. Companies will argue that these additives are necessary for production, giving plastic the ability to enhance certain properties for the final product. Additives used in plastic are toxic to humans because they are purged into the food itself by any of the four enemies of food packaging.  

Among the most representative additives is Bisphenol A (BPA). This has been used for many years as a stabilizer for the production of plastic. However, because it has been proved to act as an endocrine disruptor, the United States regulating agencies banned its use in bottles for babies or other packaging containing infant food. The problem is that BPA still is used in the manufacturing of other packaged food items, and is continuously being found in the food supply.

Phthalates are chemicals used specifically to increase the flexibility, durability, and longevity of plastics. They are likely to be present in food containers and plastic wraps used for food storage. Similar to BPA, it can cause endocrine disruption and reproductive health issues. Several scientific studies found phthalates cause fertility problems in men, decreasing the mobility, quantity, and quality of sperm. It has also been linked to diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

Reducing Your Intake

Shopping in bulk and buying products from companies who use non-toxic packaging is going to make a large difference in avoiding exposure levels. Biodegradable and sustainable packaging is what to aim for when it comes to purchasing packaged foods. Checking food labels as well as their manufacturers material labels is another simple way to reduce toxic intake. Another way to avoid plastic and plastic additives leaching into food is to switch out potentially contaminated products in your own home. For example, the plastic Tupperware containers that have a recycling sign and the number 7 on the back contain BPA, and the plastic containers who have the number 6 on the back contain styrene. Be sure to check your own Tupperware products and look out for these numbers and symbols. Glass is a safer option that does not release any type of compounds when met by light, oxygen, time, or heat. Another great plastic alternative is stainless steel. We hope to provide you with some safe strategies to recognize and avoid food contamination caused by the chemicals in food packaging.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5