Fast food isn’t known for its health benefits, but a new U.S. study suggests even the packaging may be harmful.
The study found that one-third of fast food packaging contains fluorinated chemicals called PFASs (for polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances), chemicals that give it stain-resistant, water-repellant and nonstick properties.
The trouble is these fluorinated chemicals have also been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, hormone problems, high cholesterol, obesity and immune suppression in human and animal studies.
Chemicals detected in half of wrappers, one-fifth of paperboard
The researchers found that nearly half of paper wrappers – e.g., wrappers for sandwiches and burgers and flat bags for cookies and pastries – contained fluorinated chemicals. As well, about 20 percent of paperboard packaging – e.g., boxes for French fries and fried foods – contained fluorinated chemicals.
PFASs used in many products
PFASs aren’t found naturally in the environment. These man-made chemicals have been used for decades in products ranging from food wrappers to clothing, nonstick cookware and fire-fighting foams. People may be exposed to PFASs from direct contact with these products, through the air they breathe, the food they eat and the water they drink.
For the study, the researchers tested for PFASs in more than 400 samples of paper wrappers, paperboard and drink containers from 27 fast food chains across the U.S.
More than half of the tests were done on food contact paper, including 138 wrappers for sandwiches or burgers, 68 wrappers for dessert or bread and 42 wrappers for Tex-Mex foods.
Overall, 46 percent of paper wrappers tested positive for PFASs. This included 38 percent of sandwich and burger wrappers, 56 percent of bread or dessert wrappers and 57 percent of wrappers for Tex-Mex food.
Tests of 30 samples from paper cups didn’t turn up any of these chemicals. But in tests of 25 other beverage containers, 16 percent did have PFASs.
Researchers also did more extensive testing on a subset of 20 samples to see what types of PFASs were in the food packaging. Six of these samples contained a type of PFASs called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8) that many U.S. manufacturers voluntarily stopped using in 2011 due to concerns about the potential health risks.
One limitation of the study is that researchers were unable to assess how often people came into contact with these chemicals in food packaging.
Still, the results show that even chemicals being phased out due to health concerns are still widely used.
The findings reinforce the fact that these chemicals are highly persistent in the environment, and may find their ways into people’s bodies for years after they are no longer intentionally added.
This study adds to concerns about chemicals that contaminate highly processed or packaged foods, potentially magnifying health effects above and beyond the health effects of fatty, salty, sugary diet.
How to minimize contact with fluorinated chemicals
Avoiding fast food is one way to limit exposure.
Diners can also limit exposure by avoiding oily food, high-temperature food and taking food out of wrappers right away so it has less contact time with any chemicals.
And whenever possible, customers should avoid disposable packaging in restaurants.
Source: Environmental Science and Technology Letters, online February 1, 2017.
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