Flame-retardants in butter? Tainted kids’ cereal? Sounds like the plot of a horror movie, but it’s real – potentially harmful substances are common in the foods we eat, especially if you store things in plastic containers. How do they get in there and how can you protect yourself? Here’s what you need to know about the health risks and how to prevent them…
When you butter your toast in the morning, the last thing you expect is a side order of flame retardant. But that’s just what University of Texas researchers found when they tested 10 samples of butter purchased from Dallas-area grocery stores in 2010. Most were tainted with low levels of fireproofing compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). One sample had levels 135 times higher than average, according to the 2010 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP).
PBDE isn’t the only chemical consumers should worry about. There are a host of chemicals in food experts believe could cause serious health problems, including infertility, diabetes and cancer.
“Simply put, no one wants to eat toxins with their apples, or flame retardants with butter,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit consumer watchdog organization.
“However, with 70% of conventionally grown produce having detectable pesticide levels, it’s a reality,” she adds.
Where do these chemicals in food come from?
Bottles, boxes, cans, plastic packaging and the environment.
Some of these harmful substances enter our food chain when farm animals consume tainted food or water, says Arnold Schecter, M.D., professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Texas, who led the PBDE study.
These toxic chemicals concentrate in the animals’ fatty tissue, which is why they’re most common in foods containing animal or dairy fats, like milk or butter, he says.
In fact, chemicals in food packaging may be more widespread than environmental chemicals.
Packing materials could contribute up to 100 times the amount of toxins you’d get from pesticides or other environmental chemicals, according to a 2006 European study published in the journal Food Science and Nutrition.
Top pollutants that could be lurking in your meals:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): An organic compound used to harden plastics for water bottles, baby bottles, the lining of canned goods and many other products, BPA is the poster child for food-packaging scares. It leaches into water and food, and is detectable in the urine of 93% of U.S. adults, according to Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) estimates. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are funding $30 million in new research on its health effects.
- Methylnaphthalene: This is a petroleum-based chemical commonly used to make wax-coated food packaging. Last summer, Kellogg’s recalled 28 million boxes of cereal because methylnaphthalene had seeped from box liners into the food, making at least five people sick after smelling or eating it.
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs): This group of chemicals, which includes perfluorinated carboxylic acids (PFCAs) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is used in nonstick cookware and water-repellant food packaging for greasy fare like junk-food wrappers and microwave popcorn.University of Toronto scientists recently discovered that PFCAs can migrate from wrappers to food, according to a 2011 study published in the EHP journal “These chemicals are extremely persistent in the body,” warns Lunder, senior analyst with the EWG.
- Phthalates: This class of chemicals is used to make plastics soft and flexible. One of them, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is commonly used in water and soda bottles. Phthalates also often turn up in dairy products, says Lunder, because they’re used in machinery that processes those foods.”It’s hard to pinpoint the point of exposure,” she says. “It can happen in the production or packaging.”
- Benzophenone: This chemical is a UV-blocker – certain forms are controversial ingredients in some sunscreens. But it’s also found in printing inks for food-packaging labels, as well as recycled paper used for food packaging.
- PBDE: Although little is known about PBDE’s health effects on people, recent research is worrisome. Women with higher blood levels of the chemical took longer to get pregnant, according to a 2010 study by UC-Berkeley. And prenatal exposure was associated with learning disabilities in children, a 2010 study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found. Animal studies have shown that the chemical harms liver and thyroid function, notes the CDC.
Long-Term Health Risks
Many of these chemicals in food, including BPA, phthalates and PFOAs, are endocrine disruptors - meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and interfere with hormone function.
Studies have linked these harmful substances to such serious conditions as breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and early puberty, according to a 2009 report from the President’s Cancer Panel.
A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association also found that adults with higher urinary levels of BPA are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes and liver problems. Other studies have suggested it interferes with cancer treatment.
A Threat to Unborn Children and Babies
Because they affect physical and mental development, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are considered especially dangerous to unborn children.
If absorbed by pregnant women, they can interfere with fetal development and cause long-term health issues in adulthood, such as infertility, diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer and neurological disorders, according to a 2009 position paper by the Endocrine Society.
Scientists are also considering the possible link between endocrine-disrupting chemicals in food and obesity. Researchers are exploring whether chemicals in food trigger the body to pack on pounds. In one 2007 study, published in the journal EHP, men with higher urinary levels of phthalates had larger waists.
One reason may be that “a large percentage of obese people suffer from chronic liver disease,” which makes it difficult for their bodies to metabolize and eliminate toxins like BPA, says Jane Muncke, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist with Emhart Glass, a container manufacturer in Switzerland.
Also, “many toxic, persistent chemicals we eat with food remain in fatty tissue,” she says. (In other words, the fatter we are, the more chemicals we store.)
While much of the research has focused on the effects of specific chemicals in food, experts are even more worried about the combined health risk from chemical cocktails, which can happen when different products are packaged together.
“It’s very difficult to determine the effect of different chemical mixtures,” Schecter says. In labs, a combination of common food-packaging chemicals seems to be more toxic than the same ones individually, researchers at the University of London’s School of Pharmacy found.
Trouble is, “there are no government regulations for mixtures of chemicals and we don’t really know the harm to the general population,” Schecter says.
Minimize Your Exposure
Given the widespread use of plastic and other packaging materials, it’s nearly impossible to entirely avoid chemicals in food.
But you can take plenty of steps to minimize health risks:
- Choose minimally processed, minimally packaged food. “We generally recommend people eat a varied diet that emphasizes fresh food,” says the EWG’s Lunder.
- Choose organic fare whenever possible to reduce exposure to pesticides.
- Purchase lean cuts of meat and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. The less animal-based fat you eat, the lower your exposure, Schecter says.
- Store food in glass, ceramic or stainless-steel containers. You can find BPA-free plastic containers, but they still may have other, unknown chemicals. What’s more, Schecter has found traces of BPA even in so-called BPA-free packaging.
- Shop strategically. Muncke recommends buying dry goods (like flour, rice or beans) from bulk bins; buys tomato products packaged in glass jars, since the high acidity can leach BPA from can linings.
- Don’t drink hot beverages from plastic cups (or paper cups with a water-repellant plastic coating on the inside), Muncke says. Chemicals leach from the plastic, plus chemical-laden ink on the outside can migrate to the inside when cups are stacked on top of each other.
- Don’t put plastic containers in the dishwasher. This also heats the container and encourages leaching.
- Size matters. Small, single-serving containers have a higher ratio of packaging to food, which increases the likelihood of contamination.
- Use packaged food promptly. The longer it sits in its packaging, the more time chemicals have to migrate into your food.