How food packaging affects health

Whether it’s the box with the cereal or the plastic film that protects our meat, food packaging is always present in modern life.

While packaging offers amazing benefits such as keeping food safe and fresh, it can also pose certain health risks. Some materials contain harmful chemicals that can cause problems such as weight gain, developmental problems and cancer.

The examples in this article may sound scary, but most represent the extreme cases of exposure to these elements.

glass jars

For the most part, glass is an incredibly safe food storage material. However, there is still a potential for food contamination. Some glass jars have metal lids that use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) gaskets to form a better seal. Danish researchers discovered that these gaskets potentially harmful levels of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)

While it is rare to consume dangerous amounts of DEHP, symptoms can include stomach irritation and diarrhea. Long-term exposure can affect liver and testicular function, but only animal studies have noted these effects.

Female chef putting lids on jars with freshly made organic jam Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Recycled paper packaging

Because of the potential environmental impact of discarding food packaging, more and more companies are choosing to recycle and reuse paper products such as boxes. However, sometimes printing ink from previous packaging use remains during the recycling process, expose consumers against phthalates and other harmful chemicals.

These substances are known as endocrine disruptors because they mimic and disrupt the endocrine system, which manages the various hormones in the body. Exposure to even low levels of endocrine disruptors can lead to health and developmental problems.

paper bag and carton box for takeaway Warunporn Thangthongtip / Getty Images

Paper liners

In addition to boxes, many products also contain coated paper liners to protect the food from spoilage and bacteria. However, these liners can release harmful chemicals themselves. In 2010, the Kellogg Company recalled approximately 28 million boxes of cereal because of: high levels from methylnaphthalene

While the full effects of this chemical remain unknown, some consumers became ill after ingesting the affected grain.

box of cereal on the kitchen table Photoboyko / Getty Images


One of the most infamous compounds in food packaging is bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical is most commonly found in hard, clear polycarbonate plastic.

Evidence Points to BPA have a negative influence on the brain and prostate gland, and there is some concern about other harmful effects. However, most government agencies have not banned the compound and are awaiting further investigation, and a growing number of companies are using epoxy-based resins containing BPA in metal can liners. Others — especially water bottle manufacturers — advertise the lack of BPA in their products.

Two cans of beer, female and male hands Sviatlana Barchan / Getty Images

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances

Per- and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS) are a group of thousands of different chemicals with versatile effects ranging from heat resistance to repelling grease, oil and water. These properties have made PFAS a popular additive in products such as non-stick pans and food packaging.

PFAS are incredibly persistent and can take years to leave the body. Because of this and their widespread occurrence, many researchers have attempted to quantify the effects of PFAS. Evidence currently left PFAS to altered metabolism, fertility changes, obesity and immune system weakness.

A slice of pizza in a cardboard pizza box Leszek Czerwonka / Getty Images

polystyrene foam

Polystyrene is a popular material for single-use food packaging such as takeout boxes and to-go cups. Most people popularly call this material Styrofoam. While polystyrene foam is likely safe for single use, reusing the packaging or storing it for too long increases the risk of exposure to styrene. styrene is a carcinogen which can damage white blood cells and increase the risk of cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Close-up of delivery man handing over a piece of foam lunch box twinsterphoto/Getty Images

Meat Packaging

The U.S department of agriculture has found that it is safe to store and freeze meat in its plastic and foam packaging. However, the plastic packaging is often thin and permeable to air, exposing the meat to external contaminants and potentially transferring meat-borne bacteria to other foods.

Experts recommend wrapping meat in several layers of plastic to avoid these problems and maintain quality.

Buyer hands with pork at grocery store sergeyryzhov / Getty Images

Reuse bottles

Many people reuse plastic water or soda bottles for convenience and to eliminate waste. Most health experts advise avoiding this, as the bottles often have a design that is difficult to clean and can allow bacteria to build up. While filling the bottle with boiling water would likely kill any bacteria, it can also weaken and loosen the bottle contaminants such as BPA or phthalates.

hand putting plastic bottle into paper bag for recycling Sexan Mongkhonkhamsao / Getty Images

Reuse other containers

In addition to bottles, some people also reuse other storage containers such as butter dishes or spice dispensers. These containers may be safe to use depending on: their to recycle codeswhich are usually visible on the underside of the product.

Plastic #5 is common in yogurt containers and butter tubs and has a low risk of chemical leaching. Recycling codes #2 and #4 are also likely safe. However, avoid heating these containers and limit the storage of acidic foods such as vinaigrettes or citrus fruits.

Plastic cups of yogurt and spoons on white wooden background AtlasStudio/Getty Images


To avoid possible contamination, some materials are much safer than others. Glass containers are among the best choices for food storage. Stainless steel is also a good option. If something needs plastic wrap, some Research points to aluminum foil that can block the leaching of hazardous contaminants. Consider using a layer of aluminum foil first and then wrapping in plastic wrap where possible.

Ultimately, though, it’s best to consume less prepackaged products and use products that inevitably only come in the packaging as intended. Well-known healthy eating tricks, such as supermarket edge shopping (avoiding the aisles where most packaged food is located) will not only help reduce consumption of potentially hazardous products, but also waste.

Lunch box with sliced ​​avocado, yellow tomatoes, crackers, blueberries and green salad Westend61 / Getty Images
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