While you might expect eating at fast-food restaurants would negatively affect your health, you may not think purchasing food at Whole Foods Market, hailed for high food standards, may do the same thing — not due to the quality of the food itself, but rather the packaging in which they're sold.
Deli foods and hot food bars use packaging coated with fluorinated chemicals in order to prevent grease from leaking through. Fluorinated chemicals and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are so ubiquitous that many are now detected in infants at birth. 1
The two PFCs receiving the most publicity have been perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), once widely used to make nonstick cookware and as a key ingredient in stain-resistant fabrics. 2
Both have been associated with cancer, miscarriages, thyroid problems and more. While they have been phased out of use in the U.S., they are part of a family of PFCs, many of which are still in use across the U.S. and Europe.
Some stores have begun changing policies and others have been built on the premise of selling high quality, safe foods. 3 However, the pervasive nature of PFCs and other toxic chemicals sometimes make it difficult for companies to live up to their own standards.
Grocery Store Chain Linked to Cancer Causing Chemical
A study released by consumer watchdog groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future 4 reveals Amazon’s recently acquired grocer — Whole Foods Market — was the biggest offender in their analysis of paper products coming in contact with food. They found high levels of fluorine in five of the 17 items, four of which were containers in the salad and hot food bar. 5
In all, samples from 20 stores across 12 states for a total of 78 samples, were tested. Whole Foods Market spokesperson Rachel Alkon told CNBC in an emailed statement: 6
“Whole Foods Market introduced compostable containers to reduce our environmental footprint, but given new concerns about the possible presence of PFAS, we have removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging highlighted in the report. We’re actively working with our suppliers to find and scale new compostable packaging options.”
According to the researchers, in many cases retailers have PFAS-free packaging widely available and competitively priced for use in the bakery and deli.
The study found no PFAS treatment in trays used for cook-at-home food. The tests were focused on store brand, rather than name brand products, so the study was not a complete survey of the market.
In previous testing, researchers found PFAS in sandwich wrappers, french fry boxes and bakery bags. Since the chemicals migrate into food and contaminate compost piles and landfills after disposal, the use of PFAS leads to unnecessary long-term exposure to harmful chemicals for humans, wildlife and the environment.
Ranking Well in One Analysis Is Not a Blanket Recommendation
In this recent study sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future, Trader Joe's was the only company that had zero items with PFAS. 7 A spokesperson from Trader Joe's pointed out they ask vendors to avoid using PFC substances. Additionally, the stores do not have food bars or delis, so takeout containers are typically not found.
However, in another analysis by the same watchdog group, Trader Joe’s did not fare so well. In their Safer Chemicals, Healthier Families Mind the Store campaign report, which analyzed 14 key safer chemical criteria, Trader Joe's received an “F,” alongside other companies such as Panera Bread, Publix, Subway, Starbucks and McDonalds .
Mind the Store provided an in-depth evaluation of how each company scored in each criteria, along with recommendations on steps the companies could take to improve. 8 They found many retailers failed to address the chemical safety of their products. Almost half lacked even the most basic public chemicals policy.
Unfortunately, food retailers seriously lagged behind other companies in reducing chemical hazards, such as phthalates and PFAS in packaging and other food contact materials. 9
The researchers concluded the financial, legal and regulatory risks associated with toxic chemicals continues to grow and retailers cannot afford to wait for slow-paced government regulation to catch up with the backlog of untested chemicals. 10
Relying on self-policing by the chemical industry and product manufacturers will also not satisfy the concerns of consumers who are demanding greater transparency and safer products.
Their recommendations include publishing a written safer chemicals policy for each company with developed goals and metrics, and embracing radical transparency to meet rising consumer demand for full public disclosure. 11
Testing Difficult Due to Pervasiveness of Thousands of Chemicals
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compile and keep a list of chemical substances manufactured or processed in the U.S. 12 The list includes nearly 85,000 chemicals, among which 10,000 are allowed to be added to food and food-contact materials, either directly or indirectly.
However, few of them have been properly tested for safety. Fluorine and bisphenol compounds are among the chemicals currently used in food packaging with known negative health effects on humans and animals. These man-made chemicals leach from the containers or wrappings into the food.
A recent study analyzed water bottles from nine countries and found at least 93 percent had some sign of contamination from microplastics or plastic debris. 13 The concern with exposure to microplastics containing bisphenol is that bisphenol is a hormone disrupting chemical that interferes with important pathways affecting the thyroid gland . The chemical also inhibits the effects of testosterone. 14
Ingesting even low doses of chemicals from plastics over the course of years may interfere with your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. Unfortunately, since most are exposed to these chemicals from many sources simultaneously, it's difficult to measure their health impact specifically.
Still, compelling evidence has linked these chemicals with obesity, diabetes and problems with reproductive development. Animal studies reveal disturbing specifics when exposure is measured in animals comparable to humans.
How Fluorine and Bisphenol Affects Your Health
Bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly found in plastics, effects aquatic animals in a variety of ways, including as an estrogen imitator , blocking sex hormones and disrupting the thyroid hormone system. 15 Chemical substitutes, such as bisphenol-S (BPS), are often structurally very similar to BPA and have similar effects on animals.
BPA has a significant effect on oocyte development, the precursors to female eggs, in rhesus monkeys. 16 A review of the literature on plastic ingestion in humans and animals reported a wide range of effects, including dysfunctional sperm development, testicular damage and effect on thyroid hormones essential for normal neurological development. 17
In 2006, the EPA determined PFOA is likely a human carcinogen. 18 These chemicals are also known to be endocrine disruptors, producing birth defects, reproductive problems and other serious health problems in humans.
For example, researchers found women with higher levels of PFAS have 16 times greater risk of miscarriage than women with lower levels, 19 while a recent study from Italy found boys with higher levels of PFAS had shorter and thinner male genitalia than those who had not been exposed. 20
A report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on global contaminants, based on 50,000 pages of regulatory studies and documents, include health concerns as cancer, organ damage, hypothyroidism, birth defects and immune system problems.
PFCs are commonly found in takeout containers and sandwich wrappers, nonstick pans , popcorn bags, stain-repellent or water-repellent clothing, carpeting, furniture and certain cosmetics. Many of the earlier studies done on animals were performed by toxicologists giving animals doses much higher than what humans would be exposed to.
However, Dr. Frederick vom Saal, endocrinologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, explains that since plastic mimics hormones and are part of a complex feedback system, they don't have a linear effect related to dose. In one study he found phthalates in food packaging had an adverse effect at doses many times lower than previously imagined. 21 He goes on to say: 22
“For toxins, the more you’re exposed to, the greater the effect. [But] that is not true of hormones. Hormones aren’t toxins; they’re regulatory molecules that operate at a trillionth of a gram level.”
American Academy of Pediatrics Demands Urgently Needed Oversight
In the face of growing evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issued a policy statement calling for reforms to the U.S. food additive regulatory process to protect children. While some additives are put directly into food, others have an indirect effect. This includes plastics, glues, dyes and different types of coatings used for processing and packaging.
Of most concern to the AAP are bisphenols, phthalates, PFCs, perchlorates, artificial food coloring, nitrates and nitrites. Dr. Leonardo Trasande, one of the authors of the new AAP policy statement 23 commented: 24
“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system … can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body. Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences,”
At the moment it's up to consumers to manage their own exposure to chemicals since there is a surprising lack of regulatory oversight in the industry. Substances that are considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” ( GRAS ) fall into a category created for food items with a long history of use and no evidence of harmful side effects.
The AAP believes the current list of accepted polymers is too long, as the FDA doesn't test chemicals on the list, leaving the decision up to the manufacturing companies, which don't show any peer reviewed evidence before placing their products on the GRAS list. The AAP also explained their deep concern with the current lack of proper assessment for food additives in their statement.
The first of two reasons for this may be that manufacturing abilities far outpaces evidence-based research, making it nearly impossible to produce evidence guaranteeing complete safety. With the way chemicals are now allowed into the market, this places the burden of proof on regulators instead of manufacturers. The second reason may be the result of lobbying by the chemical industry.
For instance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Dow Chemical spent close to $14 million in 2016 to lobby congress and federal agencies, and the American Chemistry Council, an umbrella organization lobbying on behalf of plastic manufacturers, spent between $5 million and $13 million lobbying annually since 2009. 25
Toxic chemicals hide in many products you use on an everyday basis. As noted by Mind the Store in their Retailer Report Card, 26 "It's time retailers put the interests of our families' health above the special interests of chemical corporations. Big retailers can innovate to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals from the products they carry and safeguard our health."
If you agree, take action by contacting the CEOs of all 19 retailers with a failing score. Mind the Store makes it easy through their Action Network page.
Limit Your Exposure to Reduce Your Health Risks
Considering all the potential sources of toxic chemicals, it's virtually impossible to avoid them all, but that doesn't mean you have to sit silently by while corporations use your home, water, air, food and body as a convenient chemical dumping ground. Until change occurs on a global scale, you can significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.
Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh and ideally organic or biodynamically grown whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals, both in the food itself and the packaging. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it's not organically grown.
Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat wild-caught Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines.
Choose certified organic grass fed meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products containing genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
Buy products in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings) into the contents; be aware that even "BPA-free" plastics typically leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad.
Use glass baby bottles.
Replace your nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
Look for Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free products. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses and more.
Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin readily absorbs contaminants. If your tap water is fluoridated, keep in mind that not all filter systems will filter out this toxic additive.
When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses or carpet padding, consider buying chemical-free varieties containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk and Kevlar, to avoid exposure to toxic flame retardants.
Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture and carpets to avoid PFCs.
Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.
Make sure your baby's toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It's advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.
Switch to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. EWG's Skin Deep database can help you find personal care products free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or install glass doors.
Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain dozens of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a plethora of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.
Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
In all, 19 of the 40 retailers, grocery and fast food restaurant chains included in the review received an "F" in 2018 for "failing to announce policies or publicly report progress to assess, reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in the products or packaging they sell." As noted by Tracy Gregoire, project coordinator for Learning Disabilities Association of America's Healthy Children:7