Forget Food Choices, Could The Packaging Be Making You Sick?

5 mins

We assume that our food and beverage choices are safe to eat but the more they are packaged and processed the more likely we are to be exposed to chemicals says Charlotte ward 

Cutting back on packaging and preparing meals from scratch not only helps the environment, it is also great for our health.

When we rely on processed and pre-prepared convenience foods we are not only at risk of consuming more salt, sugar, and fat than we should, but we also open ourselves up to chemical exposure.

While sodium benzoate – a synthetic compound used in many common foods, drinks, and condiments to improve shelf life – is not deemed a risk in small amounts, it can have harmful effects under certain circumstances. For example, if sodium benzoate is combined with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), as it is in some soft drinks, and then exposed to too much heat or light, it can form benzene, a World Health Organisation recognised carcinogen . To reduce your risk of exposure to benzene, you can check soft drink labels to see if products contain both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate.

When we opt for fast food it usually comes with the awareness that it might not be the most nutritious choice, but did you know that common packaging used to wrap burgers, bread, sandwiches, and desserts could hurt your health?

In 2016 researchers from the Silent Spring Institute, who examine the link between chemicals and health, found fluorinated chemicals in one-third of fast food packaging they tested. Known as PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), they are favoured for food packaging as they are water-repellant and non-stick, however they have also 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,’ said Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. ‘Exposure to some PFASs has children especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.’

Just recently, a study published by the University of Hawaii Maui revealed that preservatives, included to extend the shelf life of food, could also kill the beneficial bacteria in our guts.

When the carefully balanced bacteria of our digestive tracts are altered it can contribute to obesity. Type 2 diabetes, asthma, lupus, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s have also been linked to an imbalance in gut health.

While many plastic items today are BPA (Bisphenol A) free it can still be found in some water bottles, dishes, utensils, cookware, food storage containers, food wrap and electric kettles. The chemical, which could leach into food, can harm the female reproductive system, including ovaries and eggs. It has also been linked to prostate cancer. Yet it is still widely used in metal food and drink can and jar linings, as well as bottle caps, to prevent rust and contamination.

The Packaging Solution 

Concerned consumer Laura Breiding created her website in a bid to be more mindful about chemical exposure through food, cosmetics, and household items.

‘The best way to avoid harmful food packaging is to eat more food in its natural state and replace your food storage with glass or stainless steel,’ she told The Ethicalist. ‘Not only is this better for your health, but it will also have a huge impact on our planet. Plastic never goes away and does not biodegrade. The majority ends up in landfills and is a huge source of unnecessary waste. Storing your food in glass will hold in much more flavour and it is safer to use in the dishwasher, oven, and microwave. A glass storage set will also last you much longer than a plastic one will. For fruit and other foods, I love silicone covers that keep produce super fresh.’

Bees wraps packaging as a replacement for cling film has also risen in popularity in recent years and is now widely available. Plastic food wrapping – made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – is non-recyclable and non-renewable, ending up in landfill sites and our oceans. Bees wax wraps however are made from an organic muslin cloth coated in beeswax, jojoba oil and tree resin and have been created in different sizes to cover any type of food. They are water resistant and airtight to keep food fresh and last for up to one year.

alternative packaging

Bees wax wraps are the environmentally friendly way to store your leftovers. Image:

When it comes to drinking water, many of us are mindful of buying throwaway plastic bottles, instead opting for reusable bottles that we fill ourselves or even having water filters installed. But even these can affect our health as they can be riddled with dangerous bacteria. A study by found that the average reusable water container may be crawling with more than 300,000 colony-forming units of bacteria per square centimetre. To put this into perspective, the average pet toy has 2,937 CFU. Unfortunately, these bacteria aren’t visible to the human eye. Of all the reusable water bottles tested, the type with a straw had the lowest prevalence of bacteria and least harmful germs. Squeeze top and screw top bottles had the highest amount of potentially harmful bacteria.

To counter this problem, US-based startup FINTECH has developed a high-quality anti-microbial drink bottle that mimics the bacteria-repelling qualities of sharkskin.

‘Over millions of years, sharks have evolved a unique microstructure on the surface of their bodies that is inhospitable to bacterial colonies and 99.9 percent effective in preventing bacterial growth,’ company CEO Dominic Troffer told The Ethicalist. ‘We have developed food packaging that acts similarly to sharkskin to keep food and drinks safe without the preservatives that could be harming our health.’

The revolutionary water bottle will launch soon via the company’s website

In the meantime, to minimise exposure to harmful bacteria, Dominic recommends washing water bottles thoroughly after every use. To fight stubborn bacteria, but avoid environment-harming bleach, try cleaning with vinegar or look for a natural bleach alternative.

Unfortunately, most of us are at the will of an imperfect system and the only way to safeguard our health is to be vigilant and mindful of the food and drink we consume and how it is packaged on its journey to our tables.