Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

We know it’s best to eat fresh foods — there are less preservatives, no added salt, sugar orcrazy chemical additives. But what happens when the packaging of our seemingly healthy food contains unexpected and unregulated toxic chemicals?

Regardless if you buy organic or conventional food, toxic chemicals in food packaging don’t discriminate. Here’s a rundown of chemicals in food packaging that are a threat to public health and some policy and personal options to create a more healthy, sane food system.

non_toxic_pyrex_bowls

Plastic wrap

Not all plastics are created equal (some are more toxic than others), but many foods are wrapped in plastic wrapping or stored in plastic containers that contain harmful, hormone-disrupting chemicals. Organotins are a harmful class of chemicals, commonly found in a variety of products including food plastic wrap.

Microwaveable dinners & vegetables

Skip the bags of microwavable broccoli or other microwaveable meals.

The microwavable organic meals at the store may not have GMOs or pesticides, but the containers used to store and microwave can contain harmful chemicals. You can steam your vegetables on the stovetop or simply place the food on a plate or in a glass bowl with a little water, cover and microwave. A bonus of ditching pre-made meals is you’ll be more sated after eating (which means less unnecessary snacking), less salt, sugar and other preservatives.

Cookware

When you bring your fresh vegetables home, you’ll want to avoid cooking them in “non-stick” cookware. They are coated with a class of chemicals called PFCs, which are used to repel liquids, stains and have been linked to health and environmental impacts like: cancer, kidney/thyroid/liver disease.

My favorite safer cookware option is stainless steel which is easy to cook with (cast iron pans are too heavy!) easy to clean and ensure no toxic chemicals end up in your food. Ceramic and glass are great options for cooking in the oven.

Bottled water

Skip the bottled water all together. Single use plastic bottles are made from petroleum based plastic and have a high environmental footprint. The large refillable jugs of water may seem like a more eco-friendly option, but most are made of the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which is a known hormone disrupting chemical. BPA has shown to leach from plastic and into the water, and low doses of the chemical can have profound lifelong impacts.

For the cleanest water with the least health or environmental impacts, get a home filtration system which can range anywhere from $40-$400.

Unexpected contaminants from food processing

One of the world’s leading researchers on the class of chemicals called phthalates, Dr. Shanna Swan, notes that certain phthalates are ending up in the food chain from the manufacturing process. Dairy and meat had higher levels of phthalates, which are suspected to contaminate the food when processed through the tubes and conveyor belts. Since meat and dairy are high in fat, they are also safe havens for “fat loving” chemicals.

Going light on meat and dairy has many benefits aside from avoiding toxic chemicals.

Microwave popcorn bags

I love popcorn, it’s one of my favorite snacks! But conventional popcorn has three marks against it, two of which are related to food packaging: the bags are coated with a chemical (PFOA) that has been linked to health problems including cancer, low sperm count and thyroid disease. The chemical used to make fake butter, diacetyl, has caused major respiratory problems in workers in popcorn factories and excessive popcorn snackers.

No need to ditch the microwave popcorn all together however, you can use an air popper, make it on the stove, or my favorite option — make it in the microwave with a simple paper lunch bag — simple directions here.

To-go containers (styrofoam!)

Styrofoam is still a favorite option for restaurant to-go containers (because it’s cheap) but is made from the cancer-causing chemical styrene. This chemical has a large body of science showing health concerns including, links to leukemia, lymphoma, respiratory harm, gastrointestinal damage and neurological impairments. Think of what happens when you put hot food and liquid in styrofoam containers, you’re getting a sprinkling of toxic chemicals with your meal.

You can reduce the amount of food you eat out, opt for restaurants that use paper to-go containers, talk to your favorite restaurant about eliminating styrofoam, or bring your own containers.

Pizza boxes

Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe, recently did a great investigative piece looking at the questionable and harmful ingredients found in everyday pizza. In addition to concern about the chemical ingredients used in pizza are the boxes our pizza comes in. Pizza boxes are often coated with PFCs (also used on non-stick pans) to prevent the grease from soaking through the box. In addition to the health problems I outlined from PFCs in the cookware section above, new research shows some links between PFCs and arthritis.

Canned food

Canned food is thought to be our largest exposure route for the chemical BPA. A study by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute gives me hope for our ability to reduce exposure to chemicals from food packaging and canned food. They biomonitored participants (testing their blood and urine for BPA) before and after an intervention diet. What they found was that by removing all processed and packaged foods, the participants’ BPA levels dropped on average 60% in just three days.

This shows us that by removing processed and canned food from our diet, we can drastically reduce our exposure to harmful BPA.

Policy solution

When it comes to our food we have a lot more choices than we did twenty years ago and have the ability to make some choices to avoid pesticides, GMOs and toxic food packaging. The underlying problem however is a failure of our laws governing toxic chemicals. If we had strong laws on toxic chemicals that prevented them from ending up in our food packaging, we wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of our plastic wrap.

At the end of the day, we can take significant steps to protect ourselves from some of these toxic chemicals in food packaging, but should we have to worry about hormone-disrupting chemicals in our canned food?

I certainly don’t think so! This is a failure of government leadership, and it’s up to us to show Congress that we need to regulate chemicals used in food packaging.

Reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in food packaging

At the end of the day we have some personal choices we can make to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals in food packaging.

We can:

  • Choose frozen vegetables over canned food (frozen veggies have the same nutritional value as fresh vegetables)
  • Remove food from packaging before cooking in the microwave or oven
  • Buy stainless steel cookware to avoid unnecessary exposure to cancer-causing PFCs
  • Buy whole foods and cook your own food whenever possible
  • Use glass food storage containers
  • Buy grains, nuts and other items in bulk (this also reduces waste)
  • Reuse glass jars for easy ‘to-go’ containers for lunch
  • Find other safe food storage containers here
  • Make your own snacks to avoid packaging (easy granola bar recipe here)
  • Skip take out pizza and make your own
  • Opt for easier, less toxic microwaveable popcorn

Before you go –> Remember to ask food companies to get rid of BPA in cans here!

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(Photo credits: cherrypatter via ccEmily Carlin (cropped) via ccDewayne Neeley via cc)

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31 Responses to Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging

  1. Beth April 4, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Is there such thing as a list of companies making canned food WITHOUT BPA in the liners (I know some BPA alternatives are bad news too). The only canned food I consume on a regular basis is coconut milk, and I’d shell out more to know it’s not poisoning me…

    • Lindsay Dahl April 4, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Beth, there is a list of companies moving away from BPA in canned food but the big question is around the replacements. Some are using vinyl like compounds as a replacement which has equally worrisome properties. For now, in my opinion, the canned food industry isn’t moving along fast enough in the safer alternatives space. All the more reasons we need government regulation of these nasty chemicals! Breast Cancer Fund has some great resources (linked above) on their Cans Not Cancer campaign.

  2. Lori Popkewitz Alper April 4, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    So nice to have all of these reminders in one spot Lindsay. It’s really crazy that our food packaging is so incredibly toxic. And to think that we’re investing in our health through organic foods, yet the packaging is still toxic! That really doesn’t make sense. The only way to truly avoid these hazards it to find food through a CSA or a farmer’s market that isn’t in any packaging.

    • Lindsay Dahl April 4, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Thanks Lori, it’s crazy isn’t it? If anything this motivates me to cook more, which is healthier anyway!

  3. Lynn Hasselberger April 4, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    Important information! Thank you. Off to take action…

    • Lindsay Dahl April 4, 2014 at 9:05 am #

      Yay for taking action!

  4. Anne April 4, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Great detail in this article – will be sharing with lots of friends.

    I’m concerned that a BPA replacement may be as bad or worse than the BPA, so an updated TSCA would help prevent toxic replacements, I hope,.

    A friend at a cooking class yesterday just asked me about nonstick pans; will be sending this to her.

    • Lindsay Dahl April 4, 2014 at 9:19 am #

      Thanks for sharing Anne!

  5. Betsy (Eco-novice) April 6, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    I appreciate how comprehensive this post it. A good reminder of how important it is to consider anything that comes into contact with their food. Personally, I love cast iron and enameled cast iron for nonstick cooking, despite the weight : )

    • Lindsay Dahl April 6, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Thanks Betsy, perhaps I just need to lift some more weights!

  6. Hanna April 7, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    Thanks for this detailed & useful post, Lindsay. To be honest, I’ve been fired up about needing policy change re toxins & endocrine-disruptors for years – but apart from buying mostly organic produce, hadn’t looked much into my own food packaging and personal care products until a few weeks ago…. when I attended the webinar you held with Dr. Swan! The same day, I bought glass tupperware, threw out my body wash, and started thinking seriously for the first time about the avoidable toxins in my own life. Still have a ways to go, but posts like this one and blogs like Lori’s are so helpful. Thanks!!

    (Related fun fact: if I hadn’t done Green Corps after college, I’d been accepted as a research assistant on Dr. Swan’s Mt. Sinai team, grant funding pending. Interviewing with her incredible colleagues was a crystallizing moment that made me realize I definitely wanted to work in environmental health going forward).

    • Lindsay Dahl April 7, 2014 at 9:33 am #

      Hanna, what a cool story! It’s definitely a slow process. I still have plastic in my house. I still use shampoo with some questionable ingredients. But I also have non-toxic cleaners, never put hot food in plastic etc. There’s a spectrum and we’re all on this journey in a way that fits our lifestyle. I am a firm believer that systemic change via our laws is what’s needed to really solve the problem.

  7. karen April 9, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    Even the local and organic foods from farmers markets are packaged in plastic or styrofoam (I know!), unless you bring your own containers. *sigh*

    • Lindsay Dahl April 9, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Yes you’re right Karen, although those egg cartons are less of a concern for contaminating your food (as compared to say BPA leaching from cans into the food). Still clearly an environmental concern!

  8. Lynda February 28, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    Hello,
    This is a very informative and I would like to be a part of this team. Informing more people how harmful the food and the packaging is for our health and environment, very compelling!

  9. Laura June 8, 2016 at 7:09 am #

    Every time I read an article on pesticides on our food, I get so disgusted I go organic. But after some time I find myself right back where I was, eating junk. I’m a food addict so I’ve got issues right out of the gate. Then I read articles on the dangers of plastics and I’m ready to just throw in the towel. It seems like everything we breathe, touch, eat or use is harmful to us. It’s very frustrating. And trying to reform is overwhelming. I found this article incredibly illuminating…and scary! So now I’m out to be plastic free, which is a feat in itself. So many things are housed in plastic containers…shampoo, creams, detergents…the list goes on and on. Are plastics only harmful if they’re heated? I’m wanting to try a vegan lifestyle but now I’m wondering how safe my bag of pinto beans are. Then I had a thought. I used to use a plastic water filter pitcher but got on this kick about fluoride in the water, so I switched to a reverse osmosis system and was feeling pretty good about it…until now. This thing is made of plastic, so I’m wondering now just how clean my water really is. I guess I need to start reading every bag I pick up. A friend once told me, “you can only do so much”, so I guess doing SOMETHING is better than nothing at all. Some words of advise would be greatly appreciated.

    • Lindsay Dahl June 8, 2016 at 9:16 am #

      Laura, Start small and be ok with what you can do! For example, if avoiding packaged food is hard for you, try focusing on cleaning up your skin care routine (I have several articles on my site about that). Sometimes starting with beauty products is easier than food! xo

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