Toxic wrappers?

(March 4th, 2014) Swiss scientists alert epidemiologists and toxicologists to a new and as-yet poorly studied topic – the health threat of food packaging materials. But is the outcry for more intensive research perhaps too loud?

According to a recent commentary in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, there’s a new danger lurking in the environment, threatening our health. Environmental toxicologist Jane Muncke from the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zürich and colleagues at the ETH Zürich, in the US and Spain are deeply concerned about Food Contact Materials (FCM). These materials contain, the authors write, noxious chemicals like carcinogenic formaldehyde or endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), like bisphenol A, which binds the oestrogen receptor and thus, exerts hormone-like effects. Their fear is that these chemicals could leach into foods and affect people’s health. Considering that, in Western societies, the number of people consuming processed and packaged foods is constantly increasing, their worries might be real. But there simply are not enough studies to confirm the health risk, the authors say.

So, Muncke et al. appeal to the wider scientific community, “Progress is urgently needed in exposure assessment and bio-monitoring of FCMs. It’s a major challenge for epidemiology, toxicology and other health and life sciences, to tease out the cause-effect relationships between food contact chemicals and chronic diseases like cancer, obesity, diabetes and neurological and inflammatory disorders.”

It’s not as bad, meanwhile, say researchers in The Guardian in response to Muncke et al.’s original commentary. Their main points of criticism: The levels of leaked chemicals are too low to be a cause for concern and many FCM chemicals do even occur naturally in foods. Apples, for instance, contain up to 22 mg/kg formaldehyde. “To consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100 g apple, you would need to drink at least 20 litres of mineral water that had been stored in PET 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," Ian Musgrave, molecular pharmacologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia, told The Guardian.

Last year, Finnish researchers at the University of Helsinki also gave the all-clear when it comes to certain food packaging materials. They showed that not the packaging materials are a source of endocrine disrupting chemicals that we ingest but what’s inside. After a trip to a nearby supermarket, the researchers were surprised to find that industrially prepared hamburgers and, even more so, pepper salami - but not the wrappers they come in - got their yeast oestrogen detection system to glow, literally. Why? Both food products, hamburgers and salami, contain soya, a plant that hosts some natural oestrogens, most likely in the form of isoflavones.

So, although it seems that food packaging materials are not directly impairing our health but after eating up that supermarket burger, its wrappers become garbage. When this garbage is dumped or burned, “there is another risk of releasing potentially harmful components to the environment and into the food chain,” points out Grit Kabiersch, one of the authors of the Finnish study.

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: Fotolia/Jürgen Flächle

Last Changes: 04.11.2014