Is Food Packaging Harmful to Health?

While walking through any type of grocery or home store, bold labels on plastic bottles and containers often read “BPA-free” and/or “PFASs” free – but what is the significance of these chemicals?

Why were these chemicals originally incorporated into these food products, and what scientific evidence prompted their elimination? Furthermore, now that these chemicals have been removed from numerous products, what have they been replaced with?

As the general public continues to increase their awareness and concern about the chemicals that may potentially enter their bodies through food consumption, these are just a few of the numerous questions that can help ensure healthy lifestyle choices.  

Image Credit: Goncharov Artem / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Goncharov Artem / Shutterstock

Federal Regulation of FCMs

Food Contact Materials (FCMs) can be classified as any type of product that comes into contact with food at some point of time.

Aside from food packaging materials, FCMs can include any material or substance that may come into contact with food during production, processing, transport and/or storage of the item. Some possible contamination sources include:

  • Lubricating oils
  • Conveyer belts
  • Cleaning agents
  • Secondary packaging1

While both the United States and the European Union regulate the use of FCMs, there is an urgent need for the federal entities within these nations to re-evaluate the use of certain FCMs, following the accumulation of scientific evidence that demonstrates the toxicity, exposure and metabolism of these chemicals once they enter the food chain.

Of the approximately 6,000 different chemicals that are present in the FCM inventory lists of both the EU and U.S., Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most prominent regulated compounds that has been the subject of hundreds of different toxicological studies over the last several years.

In addition to BPA, the International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) has developed a database of 626 different chemicals found in FCMs that have been characterized as carcinogenic, mutagenic, bioaccumulative, persistent or environmentally harmful.

Of these, approximately 175 different chemicals that exhibit some of these potentially hazardous properties continue to be used in both the U.S. and EU. Some of these chemicals include:

  • Phthalates
  • Parabens
  • Styrene
  • Ethylene oxide
  • Trichloroethylene
  • p-Cresol
  • 1,3-dihydroxybenzene
  • Phenol
  • Benzophenone

Everything You Need to Know About Chemicals in Food Packaging

Regarding food packaging, some of the chemicals of greatest concern that will be discussed in this article include BPA, phthalates, parabens, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and styrene.

Bisphenol A

Although this chemical was originally discovered in 1891, it was not until the 1950s that researchers realized that bisphenol A (HPA) could be polymerized to create polycarbonate plastic, that exhibited exceptional transparency, colorability and flexibility, while being lightweight and maintaining a unique resistance to heat, impact and chemicals2. Following this discovery, BPA become one of the most widely produced plastic components and was used to produce a wide variety of products including automotive, optical media and electrical components, as well as packaging, houseware, construction and medical materials.

When incorporated into food products, BPA has been found to leach from these containers resulting in human consumption.  

Since BPA is used in so many different products, the accumulation of this chemical following chronic low-dose ingestion has been associated with a wide variety of toxic health effects, most predominantly endocrine disruption by reducing testosterone secretions2.

Additional effects of BPA exposure include:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Chronic respiratory diseases
  • Kidney diseases
  • Breast cancer
  • Behavioral issues
  • Tooth development defects
  • Reproductive disorders in both men and women

As a result of strong scientific evidence that supports the toxicological findings related to BPA exposure, several alternatives have been developed; however, the safety of these chemicals must also be evaluated.

For example, bisphenols S and F have already been utilized as BPA alternatives; however, a 2015 in vitro study confirms that these two chemicals demonstrate similar endocrine toxicity to BPA2.

Phthalates

The three major types of phthalates include diisonoyl phathalate (DiNP), di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHP) and disobutylphthalate (DiBP), all of which are typically added to plastic resins in an effort to increase the flexibility of final products3.

Since the bonds between the phthalate chemicals and their parent materials are non-covalent in nature, it is easy for these potentially harmful chemicals to leach from plastic products and be ingested, to ultimately cause adverse health effects.

As an endocrine disruptor, some of the most concerning health effects of phthalate ingestion include:

  • Decreased semen quality in men
  • Increased risk of endometriosis in women
  • Increase in the waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) in men and women
  • Effects on pregnant women and their fetuses:
    • Changes in labor time
    • Altered infant hormone levels
    • Altered infant and child neurobehavioral outcomes3

Parabens

Parabens are found in a wide variety of consumer products within the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, food and beverage industries. The most commonly used parabens in these industries include methylparaben (MeP), ethylparaben (EtP), propylparaben (PrP) and butylparaben (BuP)4.

Parabens are incorporated into food and drink packaging and other products for their preservative and antimicrobial properties that increase the shelf-life of these products.

As a result of the widespread use of this class of chemicals, it has been estimated that over 90% of urine samples obtained from the general U.S. population exhibit a high concentration of both MeP and PrP4.

Some of the safety concerns regarding the possible ingestion of parabens as a result of their presence in food products have arisen following both in vitro and in vivo studies that have demonstrated the endocrine disrupting activity of this class of chemicals.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are another category of synthetic chemicals which have been use since the 1940s on. They persist for decades both in the environment and the human body. Exposure to these is associated with harmful effects on the body such as:

  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Reproductive – low infant birth weights
  • Immune- lowering of immune function
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Thyroid function disruption
  • Cancer in some cases

Sources

  • Geueke, B., Wagner, C. C., & Muncke, J. (2014). Food contact substances and chemicals of concern: a comparison of inventories. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A: Chenistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment 31(8), 1438-1450. DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2014.931600.
  • Eladak, S., Grisin, T., Moison, D., Guerquin, J., N’Thumba-Byn, T., Pozzi-Gaudin, S., et al. (2015). A new chapter in the bisphenol A story: bisphenol S and bisphenol F are not safe alternatives to this compound. Fertility and Sterility 103(1), 11-21. DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2014.11.005.
  • Serrano, S. E., Braun, J., Trasande, L., Dills, R., & Sathyanarayana, S. (2014). Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data. Environmental Health 13(43). DOI: 10.1186/1476-069X-13-43.
  • Liao, C., Liu, F., & Kannan, K. (2013). Occurrence of and Dietary Exposure to Parabens in Foodstuffs from the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 47, 3918-3925. DOI: 10.1021/es400724s.
  • https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 21, 2018

Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine, which are two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are currently used in anticancer therapy.

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