Food Packaging – Guide To Food Safety
It seems that nowadays, food and plastic always go together. Plastics are used in food production and preparation. The equipment and materials used for food processing, packaging, and shipping all involve plastic materials. Even at home, leftover food are stored and reheated in plastic containers. We have become so used to it that we don’t even mind anymore the plastic aftertaste we get from some foods.
The safety of the use of plastics in the food industry has been raised again due to recent health concerns. For many years, a common chemical in food packaging, bisphenol A (BPA) which is incorporated in plastics, was believed to pose no health risks. Now that concerns about the use of BPA have been raised, the question of the safety of plastics in general has also been raised.
Contamination and Transfer
It’s common knowledge that all food packaging materials contain substances that can leach or migrate into the food that they come in contact with. It has been acknowledged that the bits of plastic that gets transferred into our food are infinitesimal in amount and that this transfer can’t be avoided.
When food is heated in plastic containers, the trace amounts of plastic that leaches into the food seems to increase. When plastic comes into contact with fatty, salty, or acidic foods, contamination also increases. However, there is no study that can determine how much of this transfer actually gets into our bodies.
The “safety label” given to most chemicals that are used in the food industry only means that these chemicals have not been proven to be unsafe. It is difficult to say for certain if the chemicals that leach from plastic into our foods can potentially affect our health adversely because there is very little research done on the matter. However, there are two potentially harmful chemicals that are under investigation. These are BPA and a class of chemicals called phthalates.
Bisphenol A is a common component of polycarbonates or hard, lightweight plastics. Products that are made from BPA include baby bottles and water bottles. Each year, about 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced.
BPA in our water bottles has been reported to be a potential poison, but we actually get more exposure from the linings of canned food. The BPA does not only leach from the cans but also reaches the food stored inside.
When ingested, the BPA enters our bloodstream. In more than 90% of people that have been regularly monitored, BPA was found to be in detectable levels in their bodies.
BPA stands out among all other plastic substances that contaminate our food in its disruptive effects on hormonal functions, especially on estrogen. High doses of BPA disrupt reproductive development and function in laboratory animals. In humans, the levels were determined to be too low to be of serious concern, but many have challenged this conclusion.
The levels of BPA in humans more often than not exceed those in laboratory rodents. But the studies show that at these lower levels, the effects of BPA are already observed in the rodents.
The chemical industry, however, has also cited studies which show that BPA at low doses do not harm rodents, and therefore, the “low-dose hypothesis” cannot be proven. But another study has shown that low doses of BPA not only harm rats but also monkeys. This finding is alarming because humans have very similar body systems to monkeys.
There is a large and well-conducted study in humans which showed that high levels of BPA in the urine also accompany a higher rate of diabetes, heart disease, and liver toxicity.
Scientists have come into a vague consensus that BPA might be harmful to our bodies. Given all the data from all the studies that have been made, it still cannot be concluded that people are safe from BPA’s effects. The FDA has stated time and again that current BPA exposures are safe. But other authorities have still raised some concerns regarding the effects of BPA.
You can reduce BPA exposure by taking the following steps:
- Avoid eating canned food and opt instead for frozen or fresh food. You not only avoid BPA, you also lessen your sodium intake and get more nutrients into your body.
- It is still always best to breastfeed your baby. If necessary, use powdered formula, not canned.
- Plastic bottles and containers that are marked with a number 7 or PC (polycarbonate) and those marked with a number 3 or PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
Phthalate, a group of chemical “plasticizers,” are used in a wide variety of consumer products, like PVC pipes and perfume. Phthalates are everywhere, including the dust we breathe inside our homes. Most people in the US have been shown to have detectable levels of phthalates in their bodies. The European Union and other countries like Japan, Mexico, and Argentina have banned the use of phthalates. Still, phthalates are produced by the billions of pounds every year.
It is believed that humans get phthalates from food. However, it is not known exactly how these chemicals are transferred and how much. One theory suggests that phthalates on crops can accumulate in the livestock that feed on them and which we subsequently eat. Another is says that phthalates leach from plastic packaging into the food stored inside.
Phthalates are similar to BPA in that they also disrupt the function of hormones, specifically, testosterone. Animal studies have shown that high doses of phthalates block the action of testosterone in the body which affects the male reproductive system.
Because people are exposed to much lower levels of phthalates, it has been concluded that these chemicals are safe for most people, even children and developing fetuses.
Other studies have shown that higher levels of phthalates in the body can be linked to low sperm count and quality in adult men. In pregnant women, higher levels of phthalates may be responsible for baby boys being born with subtle genital changes, like the anus and scrotum being slightly closer.
It is difficult to completely avoid phthalate exposure because they are so widespread. It is also unclear where the greatest exposure to these chemicals comes from.
Pots, Pans, and Plastic
Our pots and pans are usually coated with nonstick materials like Teflon which are generally non-toxic. During manufacture and disposal of these products, however, toxic chemicals can be released from these non-stick cookware. The same is true when these products are used at very high temperatures, especially over 500 degrees. The same non-stick chemical is also used in the linings of some packaging, like the packaging of microwave popcorn and fast food.
Here are some tips to avoid exposure:
- When preheating your nonstick cookware, use a low temperature setting instead of a high setting. The temperature of empty cookware can reach high levels very quickly.
- Use nonstick cookware in an oven ONLY IF the temperature setting does not exceed 500 degrees.
- While using your nonstick cookware, always run an exhaust fan.
- If you have a pet bird, make sure that it is not in the kitchen when you are cooking with your nonstick cookware. Your pet can die from fumes from an overheated pan.
- Cookware made from cast iron or other safer materials are healthier options.
- Lessen your consumption of fast food and instant food products like microwave popcorn.
You can also reduce your exposure to plastic chemicals by following these tips:
- You can replace plastic wrap with a paper towel when cooking in the microwave.
- Use plates instead of plastic containers when microwaving food.
- Opt for dishware that are made from safer materials like glass or stainless steel.
- Plastic containers with the number 3 or 7 should be avoided. Those used for water and soda bottles are labeled with the number 1 and are for single use only. Remember to recycle after use.
- Baby bottles made of tempered glass are safer than plastic. However, if you are using plastic bottles, do not heat them.
- For food storage, use Pyrex containers instead of plastic.
- Dispose of old, worn, or scratched plastic containers.
- Reduce wear and tear of plastics by hand washing them.