'Widespread' Plastics Found in Food May Cause Diabetes, Infertility

A Consumer Reports investigation found that many foods and beverages contain high levels of plastic chemicals linked to an increased risk of several health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are chemicals commonly found in plastic food and beverage containers. While they make packaging food easier, these chemicals also pose significant risks to human health.

For example, BPA and other bisphenols and phthalates may disrupt the endocrine system, which can lead to health conditions such as infertility, certain types of cancer, immune system issues, and metabolic disorders.

Moreover, recent research published in PLOS One found evidence that autistic children or youngsters with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may not filter bisphenol A (BPA) out of their bodies efficiently, which may be a factor in the development of these conditions.

Despite these potential harms, plastics are found virtually everywhere in the environment. Scientists have also discovered that microplastics can collect in human airways and may enter the heart through surgical procedures.

Now, a new report says even our food is compromised.

Plastic chemicals lurking in food

To determine how many of these chemicals are present in ordinary, everyday food items, Consumer Reports (CR) tested 85 foods in various packaging for the presence of bisphenols, phthalates, and phthalates substitutes such as DEHA and DEHT.

Manufacturers may use these chemical substitutes to replace a potentially harmful compound like BPA or phthalates. However, CR suggests these replacements may not be a safer alternative.

In the report published on January 4, CR testing showed that 79% of food products contained BPA and other bisphenols but at lower levels than CR found in previous 2009 testing.

However, even more concerning, the CR team found elevated levels of phthalates in most of the food tested — including organic products.

Which foods had high levels of plastic chemicals?

Beverages with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
Brisk Iced Tea in cans7,467
Coca-Cola packaged in plastic bottles6,167
Lipton Diet Green Tea Citrus in plastic bottles4,433
Poland 100% Natural Spring Water4,217

Canned foods with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
Canned Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon in Water Skinless Boneless24,321
Del Monte Sliced Peaches in 100% Fruit Juice14,928
King Oscar Wild Caught Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil7,792
Green Giant Cream Style Sweet Corn7,603
Bush's Chili Red Beans Mild Chili Sauce6,300
Great Value (Walmart) Baked Bean Original6,300
Del Monte Fresh Cut Italian Green Beans5,264
Snow's Chopped Clams4,380
Progresso Vegetable Classics Vegetable Soup2,888
Hunt's canned tomato sauce680
StarKist Wild Caught Light Tuna in Water<2,000
StarKist Light Tuna in Water<2,000
Season Brand Sardine in Water Skinless & Boneless<2,000

Dairy Products with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
Fairlife Core Power High Protein Milk Shake Chocolate in plastic bottles20,452
SlimFast High Protein Meal Replacement Shake Creamy Chocolate16,916
Yoplait Original Low Fat Yogurt French Vanilla10,948
Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Vanilla in paperboard cartons6,387

Fast food options with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
Wendy's Crispy Chicken Nuggets33,980
Moe's Southwest Grill Chicken Burrito24,330
Chipotle's Chicken Burrito20,579
Burger King's Whopper with Cheese20,167

When CR tested these fast foods for phthalate replacement chemicals, they found many had levels much higher per serving than phthalates. For example, Moe's Southwest Grill Chicken Burrito had 7,813,659 ng of phthalate replacement compounds per serving. Wendy's Dave's Single Hamburger Patty, Burger King's Whopper With Cheese, and a large order of McDonald's French Fries all had phthalate replacement levels over 1,200,000 ng.

Meat and poultry with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
Perdue Ground Chicken Breast9,985
Trader Joe's Ground Pork 80% Lean 20% Fat5,503
Johnsonville Smoked Sausage Beef Hot Links912

Baby food with high phthalate levels:

ProductNanograms
General Mills Cheerios Original10,980
Gerber Mealtime for Baby Harvest Turkey Dinner in a glass jar4267
Similac Advance Infant Milk-Based Powder Formula4,202
Beech-Nut Fruities Pouch Pear, Banana & Raspberries2,826

Organic baby food products had the least amount of phthalates, including Happy Baby Organic Milk-Based Infant Powder Formula With Iron and Gerber Organic for Baby Pouch Apple Zucchini Spinach Strawberry.

How plastics get into the food supply

Plastics begin their journey into the human body through the environment. Plastic degrades in landfills and leeches into the water and soil, burning plastic sends chemicals into the air, and plastic production emits microplastics into the ecosystem.

Then, plants and animals used as human food sources absorb or consume these chemicals.

In addition, plastic chemicals can enter food during processing. Food products are also exposed to these compounds when packaged in plastic bags, bottles, or lined metal cans.

What are regulators doing about plastic chemicals in food?

"Determining an acceptable level for these chemicals in food is tricky," CR notes. "Regulators in the U.S. and Europe have set thresholds for only bisphenol A (BPA) and a few phthalates, and none of the foods CR tested had amounts exceeding those limits."

In the report, Tunde Akinleye, a CR scientist who supervised the tests, said that many of these government thresholds do not reflect current scientific knowledge and may not protect against the potential health effects.

We don't feel comfortable saying these levels are okay. They're not.

Akinleye

CR reached out to several food manufacturers for comments on the test results. While several did not respond, Del Monte, Gerber, and McDonald's said they abide by existing regulations. Gerber and Chicken of the Sea noted they require suppliers to certify that their food packaging is free of BPA and phthalates.

The FDA currently allows the use of nine phthalates for food contact applications such as packaging. Eight are for use as plasticizers, and one is for use as a monomer. The FDA has not authorized the use of phthalates directly in food.

In 2016, the agency received a citizen petition from several public interest groups requesting a ban on food contact use for certain phthalates. The petition also wanted the FDA to revoke its prior sanctioned authorization of other phthalates based on alleged safety concerns. The agency later denied the citizen petition because it did not "demonstrate through scientific data or information that these actions are warranted."

However, in 2022, the agency limited the use of certain phthalates in food contact products and requested additional use and safety information on the remaining phthalates authorized for use as plasticizers in food.

Because of concerns from public interest groups and a 2016 citizen petition, the agency says it "remains aware of concerns raised about possible health effects of exposure to high levels of phthalates."


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