In the United States, the packaging on our food is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency classifies the materials that contact food as “indirect food additives,” which include plastics, pigments, adhesives and the resins and coatings used in can linings and jar lids. These materials are not supposed to influence the food they touch. Unfortunately, according to a recent investigative article by journalist Elizabeth Grossman, there is a very good chance that they are.
According to Grossman, the U.S. and Europe have approved more than 6,000 manufactured substances for use as “food contact materials.” However, a study released this summer reports that 175 chemicals used in these approved materials are chemicals known to cause adverse health effects in humans.
More troubling, a December 2013 study found that 50 percent of food contact materials listed in the FDA’s publicly-accessible database do not have accompanying information on how much of the materials people can safely consume.
“Food packaging chemicals are not disclosed, and in many cases we don’t have toxicology or exposure data,” Maricel Maffini, an independent scientist and consultant who specializes in food additives research, told Grossman.
Even more troubling, Jane Muncke, the managing director and chief scientific officer of Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit, told Grossman that these materials can be biologically active, breaking down into their component chemicals or forming byproducts that touch our food.
Food additive regulations have been in place in the U.S. for over 50 years now, but when they were first created they were more concerned with protecting consumers from major biological hazards, such as cancer, mutations and birth defects. Recently, writes Grossman, more research has been dedicated to learning how frequent, low-level exposures to chemicals can affect health over time. Such has been the case with studies of flame retardants’ influence on pregnant mothers and their children as well as the cumulative impacts of common household cleaning products.
Scientists already know that exposure to BPA, used in certain plastics and epoxy resins, can cause endocrine disruption, resulting in impaired hormone function. The same is true for phthalates, “another long-used category of chemicals,” Grossman writes, “that has also been identified as having hormonal effects.” Phthalates “do not easily migrate,” according to the American Chemistry Council, and yet food has been found to be “a significant source of phthalate exposure.”
“Presumably,” says Grossman, “the primary goal of food packaging is to keep food safe to eat. But what do we actually know about the stuff that surrounds our food?”
The answer: Not enough.