Amid the recent uproar about a chemical called azodicarbonamide, which is used to improve the elasticity of plastics, also being used in the making of Subway bread and many other fast foods, comes a new concern about plastics and food. This time, scientists (not bloggers) are sounding the alarm.
A recent commentary published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests that chemicals used in the production, packaging and processing of food—known as Food Contact Materials (FCMs)—may be seeping into the food we eat. In most cases, the scientists say, FCMs are not inert and can therefore leach into the foods being packaged.
The report gives the example of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, low levels of which are widely present in the plastic bottles used to package fizzy drinks. Formaldehyde is also present in melamine tableware, a type of unbreakable plastic dishware popular with campers.
Several other FCMs contain chemicals like bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan and phthalates, which can disrupt hormone production in humans. According to the commentary, these chemicals “mimic hormones’ property to affect biological systems at low doses, thus causing subtle changes that may lead to adverse effects at later stages in life.” Although the long term effects of exposure are unclear, scientists believe these chemicals would be the most detrimental to the very young, and they expressed specific concern about exposure in the womb potentially leading to issues later in life.
In total, the report states, over 4,000 chemicals are intentionally used in FCMs, and an unknown number of others can find their way into our food unintentionally.
The authors assert that just about everyone is exposed to FCMs in some way. One of the challenges facing the researchers is to determine how these chemicals, which many of us have been exposed to throughout our lives, can affect us.
“We are concerned about chronic diseases like cancers, diabetes, obesity, allergies, cardiovascular disease and others,” says Jane Muncke, one of the authors of the report. “All of these diseases are multifactorial, meaning that there are many different causes associated with their onset, like lifestyle, eating choices, chemical exposures and also genetics. Food packaging is only one of the factors one can be aware of when trying to lead a healthy life.”
Still, some experts aren’t worried.
“Contamination of food by packaging is not a new issue and is already the subject of European and other studies,” Professor Andy Smith, senior scientist at the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester, said to The Guardian. “Many of the chemicals detected already are of such low levels that they are likely to pose no significant risk to consumers.”
So what should you use at home? “I use ceramic, stainless steel and glass containers for leftovers and storing dry foods at home,” says Muncke. “And I have a stainless steel water bottle for tap water on the go.”
To limit your exposure to packaged food, “the best approach is to buy unpackaged, local, seasonal, organic and fresh foods—a challenge in terms of availability, time and budget restraints,” says Muncke.