With the start of a new year, many Americans will resolve to cut back on fast food to avoid an overload of fat and calories. Yet, there is another reason to resist the temptation to indulge in fast food. The grease-proof packaging holding your burger and fries may contain potentially harmful fluorinated chemicals that can leach into food.
In a comprehensive analysis on the prevalence of highly-fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging in the United States, researchers tested more than 400 samples from 27 fast food chains throughout the country. The samples, consisting of paper wrappers, paperboard, and drink containers, were analyzed for a class of chemicals called PFASs – per and polyfluoroalkyl substances – also known as PFCs. These highly-fluorinated chemicals are widely used in an array of nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, outdoor apparel and food packaging.
Potentially Harmful Chemicals That Can Leach Into Food
Exposure to some PFASs has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. “These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” says Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.” Approximately one third of children in the U.S. consume fast food every day.
Researchers applied a novel technique using particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy to analyze the samples for fluorine – a marker of PFASs. The findings were reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The team found that almost half of paper wrappers – burger wrappers and pastry bags – and 20 percent of paperboard samples – boxes for fries and pizza – contained fluorine. Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert and bread wrappers, in particular, were most likely to contain fluorine compared with other categories of packaging.
To characterize the different types of PFASs present and to validate their analysis, the researchers conducted a more detailed study on a subset of 20 samples. In general, samples that were high in fluorine, also contained PFASs. Six of the samples contained a long-chain PFAS called PFOA – perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8. Following a review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2011 several major U.S. manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using C8 compounds in food packaging due to health hazards.
Reduce The Use
Although major U.S. manufacturers have agreed to phase out long-chain PFASs in consumer products, other countries still produce them, and many companies have been replacing them with shorter-chain PFAS compounds, some of which were detected in the study. “The replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health,” says co-author Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. “That’s why we need to reduce the use of the entire class of highly-fluorinated compounds. The good news is there are non-fluorinated alternatives available.”
The team found PFASs present at a wide range of concentrations in their samples, suggesting that some packaging was deliberately treated with fluorinated compounds, whereas in other cases, the chemicals may have come from recycled materials or other sources. Even if the chemicals are phased out, they are highly persistent in the environment. Studies have shown that PFASs from consumer products accumulate in landfill sites, and can migrate into groundwater, potentially impacting drinking water supplies. Currently, PFASs are allowed in compostable food packaging, which can affect levels in soil and crop plants.
“All PFASs, including the newer replacements, are highly resistant to degradation and will remain in the environment for a long time,” says co-author Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame who developed the PIGE method to screen food wrappers. “Because of this, these highly-fluorinated chemicals are not sustainable and should not be used in compostable products or any product that might end up in a landfill.”
Food Additive Could Alter Digestive Cell Structure And Function
The ability of small intestine cells to absorb nutrients and act as a barrier to pathogens is “significantly decreased” after chronic exposure to nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, a common food additive found in everything from chewing gum to bread, according to other research from Binghamton University, State University of New York. Researchers exposed a small intestinal cell culture model to the physiological equivalent of a meal’s worth of titanium oxide nanoparticles – 30 nanometers across – over four hours (acute exposure) or three meal’s worth over five days (chronic exposure).
Acute exposures did not have much effect, but chronic exposure diminished the absorptive projections on the surface of intestinal cells called microvilli. With fewer microvilli, the intestinal barrier was weakened, metabolism slowed and some nutrients – iron, zinc, and fatty acids, specifically – were more difficult to absorb. Enzyme functions were negatively affected, while inflammation signals increased.
Avoid Titanium Oxide
“Titanium oxide is a common food additive and people have been eating a lot of it for a long time – don’t worry, it won’t kill you! – but we were interested in some of the subtle effects, and we think people should know about them,” said Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Gretchen Mahler, one of the authors of the paper.
“There has been previous work on how titanium oxide nanoparticles affect microvilli, but we are looking at much lower concentrations,” Mahler said. “We also extended previous work to show that these nanoparticles alter intestinal function.”
Titanium dioxide is generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and ingestion is nearly unavoidable. The compound is an inert and insoluble material that is commonly used for white pigmentation in paints, paper and plastics. It is also an active ingredient in mineral-based sunscreens for pigmentation to block ultraviolet light.
However, it can enter the digestive system through toothpastes, as titanium dioxide is used to create abrasion needed for cleaning. The oxide is also used in some chocolate to give it a smooth texture; in donuts to provide color; and in skimmed milks for a brighter, more opaque appearance which makes the milk more palatable.
A 2012 Arizona State University study tested 89 common food products including gum, Twinkies, and mayonnaise and found that they all contained titanium dioxide. About five percent of products in that study contained titanium dioxide as nanoparticles. Dunkin Donuts stopped using powdered sugar with titanium dioxide nanoparticles in 2015 in response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow.
“To avoid foods rich in titanium oxide nanoparticles you should avoid processed foods, and especially candy. That is where you see a lot of nanoparticles,” Mahler said.
Everyday Chemicals Linked To Chronic Disease In Men
Chemicals found in everyday plastics materials are linked to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure in men, according to Australian researchers.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute investigated the independent association between chronic diseases among men and concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates. The results of the study were published in the international journal Environmental Research.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals widely used in common consumer products, such as food packaging and wrappings, toys, medications, and even medical devices. Researchers found that of the 1,500 Australian men tested, phthalates were detected in urine samples of 99.6% of those aged 35 and over.
“We found that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure increased among those men with higher total phthalate levels,” says senior author Associate Professor Zumin Shi. “While we still don’t understand the exact reasons why phthalates are independently linked to disease, we do know the chemicals impact on the human endocrine system, which controls hormone release that regulate the body’s growth, metabolism, and sexual development and function. In addition to chronic diseases, higher phthalate levels were associated with increased levels of a range of inflammatory biomarkers in the body.”
Adopting A Healthier Lifestyle
Age and Western diets are directly associated with higher concentrations of phthalates. Previous studies have shown that men who ate less fresh fruit and vegetables and more processed and packaged foods, and drank carbonated soft drinks, have higher levels of phthalates in their urine.
“Importantly, while 82% of the men we tested were overweight or obese – conditions known to be associated with chronic diseases – when we adjusted for this in our study, the significant association between high levels of phthalates and disease was not substantially altered,” Shi added. “In addition, when we adjusted for socio-economic and lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol, the association between high levels of phthalates and disease was unchanged.”
Although the studies were conducted in men, the findings are also likely to be relevant to women. “While further research is required, reducing environmental phthalates exposure where possible, along with the adoption of healthier lifestyles, may help to reduce the risk of chronic disease,” Shi concluded.