Consumer Reports recently tested about 100 popular fast foods and supermarket staples – beverages, canned beans, condiments, dairy products, fast food, grains, infant food, meat and poultry, packaged fruits and vegetables, prepared meals and seafood – for bisphenols and phthalates. These are plastic chemicals that can be harmful to health.
They found that despite growing evidence of potential health threats, the chemicals remain widespread in food and people are consuming quite a lot of these chemicals.
The findings on phthalates are particularly concerning: They are present in almost every food tested, often at high levels. The levels did not depend on packaging type, and no one particular type of food – say, dairy products or prepared meals – was more likely than another to have them.
For example, high levels of phthalates were found in sliced peaches, pink salmon, high-protein chocolate milkshakes, vanilla low-fat yoghurt, and several fast foods (including crispy chicken nuggets, a chicken burrito, and a burger with cheese). Organic products were just as problematic: In fact, the highest phthalate levels we found were in a can of organic cheesy ravioli.
Today, plasticizers – the most common of which are called phthalates – show up inside almost all of us, right along with other chemicals found in plastic, including bisphenols such as BPA. These have been linked to a long list of health concerns, even at very low levels.
There are so many ways these chemicals enter our food. Early efforts to limit exposure to them focused on packaging, but it’s now clear that phthalates in particular can also get in from the plastic in the tubing, conveyor belts, and gloves used during food processing, and can even enter directly into meat and produce via contaminated water and soil.
The Problem With Plastic Chemicals
Bisphenols and phthalates in our food are concerning for several reasons.
To start, growing research shows that they are endocrine disruptors, which means that they can interfere with the production and regulation of estrogen and other hormones. Even minor disruptions in hormone levels can contribute to an increased risk of several health problems, including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, birth defects, premature birth, neurodevelopmental disorders, and infertility.
Those problems typically develop slowly, sometimes over decades, says Philip Landrigan, MD, a paediatrician and the director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. “Unlike a plane crash, where everyone dies at once, the people who die from these die over many years.”
Another concern is that with plastic so ubiquitous in food and elsewhere, the chemicals can’t be completely avoided. And though the human body is pretty good at eliminating bisphenols and phthalates from our systems, our constant exposure to them means that they enter our blood and tissue almost as quickly as they’re eliminated. And plasticizers in particular can easily leach out of plastic and other materials. In addition, the chemicals’ harmful effects may be cumulative, so steady exposure to even very small amounts over time could increase health risks.
All that makes it difficult to trace any particular bad health outcome – say, a heart attack or breast cancer – to the chemicals. And it makes it hard for regulators to set a limit for what is considered safe for any food. “As a first step, the key is to determine how widespread the chemicals are in our food supply,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, who oversees product safety testing at Consumer Reports. “Then we can develop strategies, as a society and individually, to limit our exposure.”
High Risks Even at Low Levels
To help figure out the scope of the problem, Consumer Reports tested a wide range of food items, in a variety of packaging. They tested 85 foods, analyzing two or three samples of each. They looked for common bisphenols and phthalates, as well as some chemicals that are used to replace them. Also included in the tests were prepared meals, fruits and vegetables, milk and other dairy products, baby food, fast food, meat, and seafood, all packaged in cans, pouches, foil, or other material.
The news on BPA and other bisphenols was somewhat reassuring: While these were detected in 79% of the tested samples, levels were notably lower than when Consumer Reports last tested for BPA.
But there wasn’t any good news on phthalates – which were found in all but one food. And the levels were much higher than for bisphenols.
Determining an acceptable level for these chemicals in food is tricky. Regulators in the US and Europe have set thresholds for only bisphenol A (BPA) and a few phthalates, and none of the foods Consumer Reports tested had amounts exceeding those limits.
But “many of these thresholds do not reflect the most current scientific knowledge, and may not protect against all the potential health effects,” says Tunde Akinleye, the Consumer Reports scientist who oversaw the tests. “We don’t feel comfortable saying these levels are okay,” he says. “They’re not.”
The decision to allow these chemicals in food “is not evidence-based,” says Ami Zota, ScD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, who has studied the risks of phthalates.
For example, one of the most well-studied phthalates is called DEHP. Studies have linked it to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, reproductive issues, early menopause, and other concerns at levels well below the limits set by American and European regulators. It was the most common phthalate that we found in our tests, with more than half of the products we tested having levels above what research has linked to health problems.
In addition, Akinleye says that with exposure to these chemicals coming from so many sources – not only food but also other products, such as printed receipts and household dust – it’s difficult to quantify what a “safe” limit would be for a single food. “The more we learn about these chemicals, including how widespread they are, the more it seems clear that they can harm us even at very low levels,” he says.