My reason for choosing food packaged sustainably has always been driven by concern for the environment, with recycling and less damaging manufacturing practices at the forefront of my mind.
Until last week, when it became a health issue, too.
The cover story in the August 31 edition of Chemical and Engineering News details how common it is for food packaging materials to end up in what we eat.
If I am what I eat (and we all are, right?), today I am part PB&J sandwich, Cheerios, milk, orange juice, granola bar and peach. You? And as it turns out, I could also be part of the plastic wrap around my sandwich, the plastic bottle and the label on the outside of the peanut butter jar, the jelly container cap (the jar is glass), and the inks on the labels of the granola bar, juice and cereal packaging. What concerns me even more is that I could be part of the food packaging from yesterday, last week, or even years ago.
As Dimitrios Spyropoulos, a regulator at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), told C&EN, “If you have a material in contact with food … something in the packaging will end up in the food.” Now that’s food, er packaging, for thought.
If it’s hard for you to fathom how you could be eating the lettering on the outside of a cereal box, I’m right there with you. After all, the chemicals would have to penetrate the cardboard and then the plastic bag to get to the cereal.
Well, I might find it harder to believe if the EFSA hadn’t reported that 4-Methylbenzophenone, a chemical closely related to benzeophenone, toxic to both the liver and kidneys, had migrated from labels into muesli — Belgian chocolate crunch muesli, to be precise. And the European panel warned that children could be harmed by long-term exposure to this chemical.
What other packaging goodies are we eating?
By now, most everyone knows about the toxicity of bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic bottles and food cans and phthalates in plastic toys and other products. Fewer people are aware that polyfluorinated compounds in waxy wrappings and chemicals in inks leach through packaging and into our foods. And frankly, there’s only so much toxicity info consumers can – and should – keep track of.
We need to know much more about what other packaging chemicals are winding up in our food and drink. State-of-the-art technology can measure contaminants in food, down below the level of parts per billion. But it only works if people use it.
As long as we put up with a food packing industry that wraps its products in whatever materials are convenient and cheap, without regard to the potential for toxic contamination via packaging, we’ll be eating traces of plastic, ink and who knows what else.
Chemical & Engineering News sums it up this way:
The common feature of all potential solutions to the leachables problem is that they cost money—sometimes several times the price of the components they replace. It remains to be seen whether consumers are willing to pay more for expensive packaging that reduces leaching into their food and drugs.
This cover story should be a wake up call to everyone involved in growing, selling and eating food. We all need to be better informed about our chemical environment that affects our food – from soil, pesticides, farm equipment, workers, trucks, right down to the packaging and labeling.
For breakfast I just want to eat my cereal – NOT the box.