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Is Our Food Packaging Dangerous?


Read any tips on how to eat healthfully and wholesomely, and one thing you're never going to see is a recommendation to eat more packaged foods. There's a reason for that. They are, on the whole, not very good for you. They're processed, full of preservatives and harmful fats, contain massive sodium bombs, and have enough sugar to power a class of 4th graders on a sprint around the world.

But there's another dangerous issue with our packaged foods: The actual packaging.

The Zurich-based non-profit Food Packaging Forum has spent the past two years examining how the packaging we use to hold food affects what's inside. They've looked at how bisphenol S, the substitute for BPA, reacts to food. They've studied how chemicals migrate from paper and boards into dry foods. They've researched how dyes in packaging leak onto the food.

Their latest study, however, looks at something else. It focuses on the vast gulf between dangerous chemicals and the laws designed to protect us. And it's not very comforting.

The group cross-referenced the chemicals considered dangerous by the E.U. and those deemed safe enough to be legally used by American regulatory boards. The result? A whopping 154 dangerous materials are legally used in the U.S. Things like phthalates (which are used to make plastic flexible and durable and, oh yeah, have also been linked to male infertility) and benzophenones (constantly used in packaging inks, despite being harmful enough that Skin & Allergy News gave it the 2014 Contact Allergen of the Year "award").

While the results of the study may be alarming, the intended effect isn't to get everyone to clear their fridges and burn their pantry. Instead, it's to show how the regulation boards have been neglecting to police food packaging with the same tenacity they attack other areas. Says Doctor Jane Muncke, the managing director of the Food Packaging Forum:

Chemicals with highly toxic properties may legally be used in the production of food contact materials, but not in other consumer products such as computers, textiles and paints.

There's clearly something wrong when non-edible products are put under more scrutiny than actual food. But until the regulation boards start putting together adequate legislation to deal with this blind spot, consumers must protect their own health. So, what are some possible solutions?

In Germany, one grocery store has taken the dramatic leap of getting rid of their packaging completely. Instead of single-use bags or prepackaged items, their entire inventory is in bins and vats that consumers can portion off with their own packaging. While this method is more due to the grocer's concern about the environment -- along with, no doubt, a concern about his store's bottom line, which is certainly assisted by not having to buy bags -- it may still be a vision of the future of grocery stores if the hyper-local movement continues.

But until that happens, there are a few things consumers can do to lower the impact poison packaging can have on their health.

For one, avoid cans and plastic. If you can't, make sure not to store them in direct heat. Secondly, take meals packaged in plastic or cardboard out of their containers before heating them up in the microwave. And if you're storing foodstuffs like grain, flour, or sugar, put them in glass or ceramic jars instead of letting them sit and soak up the bad materials of the plastic containers.

But the best thing you can do for yourself, as always, is just avoid packaged foods entirely.

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