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article imageChemicals used in packaging processed foods may be harmful

By Karen Graham     Feb 20, 2014 in Health
Open that box of Nutri-Grain cereal, pour on some milk from the carton, and you're ready to eat. But wait, you need to pop an antihistamine from its little plastic and foil pouch first, downing it with orange juice from the plastic container.
A paper published on February 19 in the BMJ, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, is giving the public reason to be concerned, because the chemicals in the packaging used to store processed foods may be hazardous to our health over the long term.
Containers used to hold the processed foods we consume, from cardboard to plastic, metal, and rubber are needed to protect the foods inside from contamination. But environmental scientists are now warning us those same packages and containers are also a source of contamination.
In a natural process called leaching, material exposed to water will leach components from its surface or its interior depending on how porous the material may be. So that box of whole-grain cereal you eat may also contain dyes and minute amounts of other chemicals from the packaging. The same can be said for the milk, juice and antihistamine tablet.
Dimitrios Spyropoulos, a regulator with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says, “If you have a material in contact with food, and if it’s not completely inert—and there are no completely inert materials—something in the packaging will end up in the food.”
The authors point out that although some of the over 4,000 chemicals used in our packaging are regulated, people who eat processed or packaged foods are being chronically exposed to low-levels of potentially harmful chemicals on a daily basis. The fear is that there is little information on the long-term impact of these chemicals on the body. They use the term food contact materials or FCMs, to describe them.
There has been little or no research done on synthetic chemicals ingested during the crucial stages of human development, particularly in the womb, say the authors. They point to the use of known toxicants, such as formaldehyde, a cancer causing substance, that is legally used. Formaldehyde is present in low levels in plastic bottles used for soda and other carbonated drinks and in melamine tableware.
Melamine is a fire-retardant used in adhesives. Animal studies have shown that melamine can be responsible for kidney and bladder stones, kidney failure and cancer. In 2008, the chemical was found in Chinese powdered infant formula, and was linked to three infant deaths and illness in 50,000 babies. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), eating highly-acidic food microwaved in melamine bowls is dangerous because the melamine will leach into the food in high concentrations.
Another group of FCM's can disrupt hormone production. They include bisphenol-A (BPA), tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates. "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," the authors point out.
BPA is used in lining aluminum cans, to retard rusting, and in the making of a number of plastic containers. In 2012, the FDA banned the use of BPA in the making of baby bottles and sippy cups, all the while insisting there was no scientific evidence of BPA being unsafe in the amounts used in the production of the items. High amounts of BPA in urine samples have been linked to obesity in young people, as well as asthma, behavior problems, kidney and heart disease.
Phthalates are used as plasticizer compounds, and are found in nail polish, many toys, wall coverings, and of course, food packaging. They have been linked to increased insulin intolerance in teens and adolescents, as well as premature births.
Because everyone in the world has come into contact with these chemicals, the authors feel there will be a problem proving that long-term exposure is detrimental to the public health. "Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled," they wrote.
While the article is interesting, many researchers are saying it is a "little over the top." Dr. Ian Musgrave, senior lecturer in the medicine faculty at the University of Adelaide, said "To consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100g apple, you would need to drink at least 20 liters of mineral water that had been stored in PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Obviously the concern about formaldehyde from food packaging is significantly overrated, unless we are willing to place 'potential cancer hazard' stickers on fresh fruit and vegetables."
More about Processed foods, Packaged food, Chemicals, Formaldehyde, Cancer