By now you've probably heard the recommendation to trade out your non-stick cooking pans for cast iron, ceramic or glass ones. Some products that are "stain resistant," "non-stick," or "water proof," might be easier to spot and stay away from than others. What you might not have realized, was just how dangerous some fast food packagings can be. Granted, you might be aware when you're purchasing a fast food burger or burrito that it's bad for your health because of the fat, sugar and salt content, but you might not be thinking of how harmful it can be for your health because of how it's packaged. In a recent report published on Wednesday, February 1, 2017 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, the authors shared their findings that about one-third of the packaging that researchers tested was found to contain fluorinated chemicals. These chemicals are favored in food packaging because of their "grease resistant" properties.
A study by the Silent Spring Institute found fluorinated chemicals in one-third of the fast food packaging tested. Previous studies have shown PFASs can migrate from food packaging into the food you eat. 38% of sandwich/burger contact paper contained fluorine.
You might be wondering "what are fluorinated chemicals and why are they dangerous?" Highly fluorinated chemicals contain carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds, which are some of the strongest bonds in nature. That makes them both incredibly resistant to breakdown and very useful in many industrial capacities, including fast food packaging. That said, there are several scientific studies that have shown a link between these chemicals and the onset of:
- testicular and kidney cancer
- liver malfunction
- hormonal changes
- thyroid disruption
- high cholesterol
- ulcerative colitis
- low birth weight and size
Because the chemical bond between fluorine and carbon is so strong, it can take years to break down once it's in the human body, and it will stay in the body for years.
56% of dessert and bread contact paper contained fluorine
Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute and one of the authors of the paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters stated that: "Previous studies have shown that PFASs can migrate from food packaging into the food you eat... These studies have found that the extent of migration depends on the temperature of the food, the type of food and how long the food is in contact with the paper. And it depends on which specific chemical is in the packaging."
57% of Tex-Mex contact paper tested contained fluorine
The study was conducted by scientists from five institutions. For the study, they collected more than 400 samples of fast food packaging from 27 leading US chains.
They then split the types of packaging into six categories: food contact paper (sandwich wrappers and pastry bags), food contact paperboard (boxes for fries or pizza), non-contact paper (outer bags), paper cups, other beverage containers (milk and juice containers) and miscellaneous (lids).
Food contact papers were divided into three subcategories: sandwiches, burgers and fried foods; Tex-Mex; and desserts and breads.
20% of the food contact paperboard tested contained fluorine
Out of the food packaging tested, food contact paper was the one that fared the worst, with 46% of all samples testing positive for fluorine. Food contact paperboard was next, at 20%, followed by other beverage containers at 16%. Non-contact paper, paper cups and miscellaneous all tested negative for fluorine.
"For foodservice packaging that requires a barrier coating, 'short chain' fluorochemicals are used today, so it's no surprise that the study would find these chemicals," said Lynn M. Dyer, President of the Foodservice Packaging Institute in the US. "These, like all packaging products, go through rigorous testing to ensure that they meet stringent US Food and Drug Administration regulations, providing the safe delivery of foods and beverages to consumers."
Dryer added, however, that "some fluorochemical-free products have been introduced since this study was conducted in 2014 and 2015," meaning there are now a greater number of options available for fast food chains to provide oil, grease and/or water resistance.
Based on the information presented in the study, you might be wondering - what can I do to avoid these harmful chemicals getting into my food? Besides the route of cutting out all fast food from your diet, there is not too much a consumer can do. There is no easy way for customers to tell what packagings are fluorinated and which are not. From the findings of the report, you could ask that your fries get served to you in a paper cup instead of the typical packaging, or that certain items not be wrapped in contact paper.
Ultimately, the best way to protect yourself is by pressuring fast food companies to switch their packaging to non-fluorinated products. This information might also encourage you to try to eat more home-cooked meals that you can carry around in your own, chemical free containers.