BPA & Other Chemicals in Food Packaging: Harmful to Health or Hype?

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

Americans are increasingly concerned about their diets. More than half of those polled say they are taking steps to increase the healthfulness of the meals they eat, according to a 2014 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation.

Yet, even healthful foods may pose risks to consumers if they are packaged in materials that contain certain chemicals. Today, there is growing concern over some such materials.

BPA & Other Chemicals in Food Packaging: Harmful to Health or Hype?Bisphenol A (BPA) is the chemical that raises the most alarm with the general public, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.

“(It) can be found in many plastic containers, and the epoxy coating that lines metal food cans,” she says.

Lunder says BPA is a synthetic estrogen that is linked to problems with the reproductive system, behavioral changes, early puberty and even cancer.

BPA can leach from these packages and into the food contained in them. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found BPA in 90 percent of urine samples representative of the U.S. population.

Another group of chemicals known as phthalates – which make plastic more flexible and harder to break – also might leach from plastic packaging into foods. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive systems of lab animals, according to the CDC.

Other chemicals also raise concerns. In fact, 154 chemicals classified as hazardous by European Union chemical regulation standards are legal to use in U.S. food packaging, according to the study “Food Additives and Contaminants” authored by Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland.

Such chemicals include:

  • Asbestos, which is known to affect the lungs
  • Perchlorate, which can impact thyroid gland function
  • Tributyltin, which has been linked to immunosuppression

Harmful to health, or hype?

Some critics say concerns about chemicals in food packaging are overblown. For example, a number of researchers criticized the “Food Additives and Contaminants” study for being alarmist.

As for BPA exposure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contends that it has performed its own research and examined hundreds of studies on the issue. The agency concludes that “current approved uses of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe.”

However, Lunder notes that many prominent biologists, endocrine specialists and other scientific and medical authorities disagree with these conclusions.

She says the FDA’s findings are based on old scientific methods that do not account for the ability of BPA and other chemicals to disrupt the endocrine system.

“Exposure to even miniscule concentrations of these chemicals can have large effects on the developing brain, nervous system and reproductive systems of people, laboratory animals and wildlife,” she says.

Lunder says it is difficult to avoid contact with these chemicals.

“This is a problem that is difficult to shop your way out of,” she says, noting that use of the chemicals is commonplace.

If you are concerned about avoid BPA in particular, the National Institutes of Health makes the following recommendations:

Lunder adds that many store receipts also contain BPA that can rub off on your hands.

“Shoppers should decline receipts when possible and wash their hands after handling receipts,” she says.