Most people know that fast food can expand their waistlines and increase their risk of cancer.
And I’m not just talking about the factory-made fats, sugar, chemicals and other fiber-free concoctions that fill these items. Those are bad enough, but these foods pose another danger: the packages they come in.
Analyses of the chemicals in fast food wrappers and containers show they’re leaching toxins into what we chew and swallow.
Compounds called fluorinated chemicals – which are carcinogens – have been migrating from the food coverings into burgers, fries and other items. Keep reading for the full story. . .
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In extensive tests on fast food packaging, researchers at Notre Dame University and the Silent Spring Institute analyzed more than 400 samples of food packaging purchased at 27 fast food outlets in various locations in the US.1
The packaging included drink containers and paperboard as well as paper wrappers that are used on food. The lab examinations looked for chemicals called PFAS (which are also called PFCs).
These types of chemicals are often used in a variety of products because they are stain-resistant, nonstick and waterproof. These package additives are handy – they keep food from sticking to the wrappers.
The compounds can be incorporated into nonstick cookware and carpets along with waterproof and water-resistant clothing. Right off, that makes me ask why anyone would want these chemicals near their food. (Yes, nonstick cookware is a bad idea – see Issue #280.)
These chemicals are seriously toxic and have been linked to various kinds of cancer, increased inflammation, thyroid disease, infertility, developmental problems in kids – and other health conditions.
Children are most affected
In a bit of an understatement, researcher Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., warns, “These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food.”
And while it’s bad enough that you or I take in these chemicals in our food, Schaider points out, “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”
Every day, one of three kids in the U.S. eats fast food that may be contaminated.
Schaider’s study demonstrates that half of all the paper wrappers tucked around burgers and fast food pastries had these toxins oozing out of them. About 20 percent of the pizza boxes and fries packaging the researchers looked at were also contaminated. The most frequently tainted packages included paper used for Tex-Mex food as well as dessert containers and bread wrappers.
The worst of the packaging toxins
The most troubling of these substances, say the researchers, are those classified as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and often referred to as C8 or long chain PFAs.
In 2011, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found plenty of evidence of the health dangers linked to C8, major American corporations said they would stop putting C8 compounds in food packaging – although companies in other countries still use them.
But so far that promise by U.S. firms has turned out to be as empty as the calories in junk food. Our food packaging is still contaminating food with long chain PFAs.
Another complication – while the American companies agreed to stop making and using long chain PFAs, the new chemicals they came up with are probably just as risky.
All of these toxins last a long time and resist breaking down. So after the wrappers are thrown away, the chemicals they contain can enter the environment and stay there, in the soil and water, for nobody knows how long.
“The replacement (short chain) compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health,” warns researcher Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. “That’s why we need to reduce the use of the entire class of highly fluorinated compounds. The good news is there are non-fluorinated alternatives available.”
Many other packaging ingredients may be harmful
The controversy over the fluorinated toxins in fast food wrappers highlights what researchers at Carnegie-Mellon Institute say is just one part of a wider food packaging problem: Plenty of other chemicals added to food containers threaten us with cancer and other illnesses.
Plus, the researchers say the dangers from these toxins show the regulations on what can be used in food containers just aren’t adequate.
The Carnegie folks refer to these toxins as FCMs – food contact materials.
The researchers warn:2
- Current regulations allow carcinogens like formaldehyde to be used in food packaging and containers. Formaldehyde can be found, at low levels, in plastic soft drink bottles as well as plastic forks, plastic spoons and plastic plates.
- The current U.S. food packaging rules permit endocrine-disrupting toxins. These are chemicals that interfere with our hormones and are linked to cancer. The list includes phthalates, triclosan, tributyltin and the well-known bisphenl A (BPA).
- It’s now permitted for food companies to add any of more than 4000 chemicals of questionable safety to food packaging even though the health effects of many of these toxins have not been adequately tested.
According to the Carnegie-Mellon study of this problem, “Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly.”
More problems are on the way
The toxins going into our food don’t stop with the ones I’ve mentioned.
Researchers are also alarmed about the use of nanoparticles – extremely small particles of various substances – that are often added to food and food packaging. Researchers say these particles have health consequences that still remain largely unknown.
Nanoparticles are incorporated into food packaging to make it stronger, moderate how much air gets in, and stop the growth of microbes that spoil food. They are even added to the food and drinks themselves to keep ingredients from caking and to keep bacteria from reproducing.
But nanoparticles can disrupt the activity of the cells in your digestive tract and interfere with digestion. The result can be that the body takes in too much of some food ingredients and can’t absorb others.
In lab tests on drinks sold in the supermarket that contain nanoparticles, researchers found that the particles in these beverages reduced the number of microvilli in the intestines (tiny projections that take in nutrients).3
Meanwhile, other researchers note that nanoparticles are now added to at least 1,000 different foods. Scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia say that once the particles enter the body they can travel in the blood and lymph and make their way to the heart, liver, brain and spleen.4
It’s all pretty scary when you think about the implications for how our bodies may be affected by this continual barrage of toxins and nanoparticles.
But it makes a good argument for making sure that most of your meals and snacks consist of real food – organic meats, fruits and vegetables — foods that you prepare yourself and can buy with minimal packaging. That’s the safest course to take, as opposed to waiting for the government to “fix” things.
If you prepare your own foods, you don’t have to wonder about what unseen toxins have leached into them from their containers.
Not to overburden you with toxic scares, but our last issue also covered this subject. Artificial sweeteners are among the faux foods you absolutely need to avoid if you value your health (by the way, they also cause you to GAIN weight instead of losing it). We’re running the article again below, just in case you missed it.