Plastics in Food Packaging
As Madonna sings, we live in a material world, and unfortunately, that material is plastic. Most Americans don’t think twice about drinking out of plastic bottles or plastic touching their food. Most product and food staples are purchased in plastic bags or containers, cans are lined with plastic, leftovers are saved in plastic, food is microwaved in plastic, and often even eaten with plastic utensils! In fact, to date, humankind has produced 8,300 million metric tons of plastics with an exponentially growing production.8 It’s so ubiquitous that that most people think it’s innocuous.
In the last decade or more though, a lot of really disturbing information has emerged regarding the health of plastic. Some plastics are well known for their negative health effects, like Bisphenol A (BPA), but what about other plastics, and are we safe with BPA-free labeled items?
Questions around BPA have caused consumers to question other materials and plastics —and we are discovering that all plastic dishware, storage and cooking containers leave a trace of the plastic chemical in our foods and beverages. Often, the risk of plastic degradation has a lot to do with manufacturing practices and the temperature and/or acidity of products stored in them. That and the fact that plastics are rarely recycled and are very bad for the environment is the reason that my family only eats and drinks from ceramic, glass, or stainless steel.
Here are some of the types of plastics and materials that have negative health effects:
#1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is used in soda bottles, water bottles, nut-butter containers, cooking oil bottles, and detergent/cleanser bottles. You can tell if you are holding a bottle containing PET by looking at the recycling symbol on its bottom. In this case, that symbol is a 1.
There are numerous byproducts that migrate our or in other words release out of plastics. In particular, for PET, those are acetaldehyde, the metal antimony, and phthalate acid esters (PAEs or phthalates, risks discussed below). Antimony is more of a risk with high temperatures9 and acidic foods/beverages and is a toxic heavy metal associated with lung and heart diseases and menstrual irregularities.10
#2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) & #4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Polyethylene (PE) is used in milk and water jugs, plastic produce bags and grocery sacks, yogurt cups and food-storage containers. High density polyethylene (HDPE) has the number 2 as its recycling symbol, while low density polyethylene (LDPE) has a number 4. Potential side effects of PE are hyperactivity and increased cancer risk.
Migrated byproducts of PE include Butylated Hydroxyl Toluene (BHT), as well as Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1076, Irganox 1010 … all not natural nor nutritive meaning the body has to identify it, process it, or store it with no positive effects to us (and often very detrimental side effects). In particular, BHT is correlated with risks of cancer and asthma and is also found to disrupt behavior in children.
#3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), which is used in bottles used for water, salad dressing, detergent, cooking oils, shampoo and mouth wash, nut-butter containers, plastic wrap, and teething rings, pacifiers, nipples, and toys. PVC has the number 3 as its recycling symbol.
Plasticizers, dioxins, vinyl chloride, lead, cadmium, mercury, phthalate acid esters (PAEs or phthalates, discussed below) and the carcinogen diethyl hexyphosphate (DEHP) all release or migrate off of PVC.
PVC has been associated with adverse health effects such as cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction2.
#5 – Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene (PP) is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a safer choice than some other types of plastics. It’s used in potato chip bags, food containers like yogurt, cream cheese, and butter. It has a high heat tolerance and therefore leaches a lot less into our food and beverages than other types of plastic. PP is also used in textiles such as indoor and outdoor rugs.
#6 – Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene(PS), which is used in disposable plates and cutlery, Styrofoam cups, meat trays and egg cartons, foam take-out food containers and cups, and foam packing material. PS can migrate into food and once eaten, stores in fat cells in the body. PS’s potential side effects are elevated rates of lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers for workers in polystyrene facilities and increased cancer risk in animals. So that hot beverage in a Styrofoam cup is putting cancer causing chemicals into your fat cells. Polystyrene has the number 6 as its recycling symbol.
Polystyrene can cause elevated rates of lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers for workers2
Polystyrene, styrene, and Styrofoam are not only carcinogenic meaning they cause cancer, but they are an environmental nightmare.
#7 “Other” Plastics
Polycarbonates, all plastics without recycling symbols 1-6, Tupperware, oven baking bags, other plastic containers with recycling symbol #7. This is a catch-all category for plastic that doesn’t fall into the other categories. It contains BPA and is generally not considered safe. These plastics are suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.12
Phthalate Acid Esters (PAE) or Phthalates
Phthalate Acid Esters (PAEs), commonly called phthalates, which are used in pesticides on plants, so it accumulates in livestock we eat; plastic packaging and wrappers and is used in most molded plastics.
PAE’s potential side effects include endocrine disruption, increased adiposity (fat accumulation), and insulin resistance, decreased concentration of estrogen and testosterone, decreased sperm count, and decreased anogenital distance in baby boys (the distance between the anus and genitals). 4
Phthalates are also used in nail polish, we aren’t just eating it, we are breathing it in, and it can bioaccumulate (build up in our bodies over time).
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is used in baby bottles, toys, pacifiers and sippy cups, food storage containers and plastic microwavable plates, ovenware, utensils, tooth sealants, plastic milk and water bottles, and in the lining of the majority of aluminum cans (beer, soda, sparkling water) and canned foods. Polycarbonates with BPA have the number 7 as their recycling symbol.
BPA leaches into food and water supplies easily. More than 93 percent of the urine samples examined in a CDC study contained BPA concentrations. 14 BPA is not only easily absorbed, it’s easily transferred through the body and passed along during pregnancy (in the uterus).
BPA imitates the hormone estradiol, a form of estrogen, and is released when heated, washed or exposed to acidic foods. Since it imitates estradiol it is called an endocrine disruptor. Potential side effects in animal studies include increased risk for certain cancers, hyperactivity, early puberty, increased fat formation, abnormal sexual behavior, disrupted reproductive cycles and structural damage to the brain. 5
In 2008 the FDA stated that BPA in plastic was safe, but after more research there is now a ban on BPA baby bottles in New York, Maine, Oregon, California, Washington, Wisconsin and several other states, as well as in Canada and the European Union.
The growing concern around BPA has led to the marketing of several types of BPA-free plastics. Some might be BPA free, like polypropylene, but most manufacturers have only replaced BPA with bisphenol-S (BPS) an equally risky chemical!15 BPS shows up in urine concentrations at levels similar to those of BPA–an indication that manufacturers are simply switching one for the other, while still being able to advertise their products as “BPA-free.” A 2012 study4 found 81 percent of those tested from the United States and seven Asian countries had BPS in their urine. 15
Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE) is used for nonstick coatings on pots and pans, microwave popcorn containers, candy wrappers and pizza boxes. Potential side effects include degradation of gas byproducts that can be lethal to birds, birth defects in humans, and possible thyroid interaction if inhaled during cooking or ingested if the Teflon surface is scratched or damaged from high heat.
Per- and/or Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a group of chemicals belonging to a single class. PFASs include PFOA, PFOS, and GenX and are common food and drinking water contaminants as a result of industrial releases, firefighting foams, and from food packaging. They are not known to break down in the environment and they move through soil to drinking water and from food packaging into food.
PFASs are found in microwave popcorn bags, takeout packaging, non-stick cookware, and takeout packaging (even those that look compostable!). PFAS can build up in crops, fish, and livestock, ultimately contaminating the food we eat and the water we drink.
According to Safer Chemical, Healthy Families, PFAS risks include kidney and testicular cancer, hormonal disruption, elevations in cholesterol, immune system disruption, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.
It is important to note that almost every item we come in contact to has a risk to us, even water. It’s the dose that makes the poison. (My kids have asked, so I’ll set your mind at ease, you would have to drink about 5 gallons of water in an hour to create an issue and you undoubtably would throw up first. Don’t try to breath it in though, that’s called drowning, and that’s no fun.)
8 Steps to Safer Container Use
There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.
- Give up bottled water. Not only is the plastic bad for you and the environment, but often the water quality is the same as tap water, purchased from municipalities for ridiculously low rates, and just making the corporation richer.
- I once heard a doctor at a conference say, “your plastic water bottle is making you fat” and that helped the audience understand how important it is to stop drinking bottled water or water from plastic sources.
- Use glass baby bottles with silicon nipples and choose powdered rather than liquid infant formula.
- Drink liquids from glass, ceramic or BPA & BPS free stainless-steel containers. Avoid using numbers 7 and 3 plastic bottles unless marked BPA & BPS free.
- Limit your intake of canned foods; some brands are now use BPA free cans, but I haven’t seen any that label BPS free; you may have to contact the company.
- Never preheat your nonstick cookware on high, cook only on low temperatures if you use nonstick cookware, and discard them if they are scratched or worn.
- Run the exhaust fan over the stove while cooking to decrease fumes if you are using nonstick cookware.
- Use a paper towel instead of plastic wrap in the microwave and put food on a plate to heat or in glass containers.
- Store food in glass or Pyrex, rather than plastic containers.
- Discard scratched or worn plastic containers and hand-wash plastics to reduce wear and tear.
- Discard any plastic containers you’ve had since before 2012. That’s the year the FDA banned the use of BPA in sippy cups, baby bottles, and baby formula containers.
- Avoid handling cash register receipts coated with a shiny film. According to advocacy group Breastcancer.org, that shiny coating contains BPA.
- Bring your own ceramic cup into your coffee shop. Most paper cups used for hot beverages are lined with plastic to keep them from leaking, but those plastics are leaching into your drink.
With time, and advocacy, companies do change their ways. McDonalds Corporation, in Jan 2021, just announced that they intend to eliminate PFAS in packaging materials by 2025 – great news – https://corporate.mcdonalds.com/corpmcd/our-purpose-and-impact/our-planet/packaging-and-waste.html/asdf
Amazon as well is reducing the use of toxic chemicals and plastics in food packaging. PFAS, phthalates, PCV, PS and BPA are among the chemicals now prohibited for use in their Amazon-owned private brand Amazon Kitchen in the U.S. and EU. https://sustainability.aboutamazon.com/environment/packaging-and-products/chemicals
- Washington Toxics Coalition – Dr. Fran Solomon, owner and instructor of Environmental Teaching International.
- Characterization of plastic packaging additives: Food contact, instability and toxicity, Lahimer et al., Arabian Journal of Chemistry, Volume 10, Supplement 2, May 2017, Pages S1938-S1954 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878535213002220
- Is Polypropylene Safe and BPA Free? (healthline.com)
- Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products, Zimmerman et al., Environ. Sci. Technol. 2019, 53, 11467−11477 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.9b02293
- Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Geyer et al., Science Advances 2017, 3 (7), e1700782.
- Antimony leaching from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used for bottled drinking water, Westerhoff et al., Water Research, Volume 42, Issue 3, Feb 2008, Pages 551-556, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0043135407005246
- BPA May Affect the Developing Brain by Disrupting Gene Regulation – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130225153122.htm?
Erin Williams, MSN CN LMP, is the founder of EZBalance.com, a health and wellness company established in 2001. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Purdue, a master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University, and is currently studying to become a Functional Medicine Practitioner. Erin enjoys sharing her love of natural health and wellness with people through lectures, blogs, and consultations.