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:
|Brisk Iced Tea in cans
|Coca-Cola packaged in plastic bottles
|Lipton Diet Green Tea Citrus in plastic bottles
|Poland 100% Natural Spring Water
Canned foods with high phthalate levels:
|Canned Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon in Water Skinless Boneless
|Del Monte Sliced Peaches in 100% Fruit Juice
|King Oscar Wild Caught Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil
|Green Giant Cream Style Sweet Corn
|Bush's Chili Red Beans Mild Chili Sauce
|Great Value (Walmart) Baked Bean Original
|Del Monte Fresh Cut Italian Green Beans
|Snow's Chopped Clams
|Progresso Vegetable Classics Vegetable Soup
|Hunt's canned tomato sauce
|StarKist Wild Caught Light Tuna in Water
|StarKist Light Tuna in Water
|Season Brand Sardine in Water Skinless & Boneless
Dairy Products with high phthalate levels:
|Fairlife Core Power High Protein Milk Shake Chocolate in plastic bottles
|SlimFast High Protein Meal Replacement Shake Creamy Chocolate
|Yoplait Original Low Fat Yogurt French Vanilla
|Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Vanilla in paperboard cartons
Fast food options with high phthalate levels:
|Wendy's Crispy Chicken Nuggets
|Moe's Southwest Grill Chicken Burrito
|Chipotle's Chicken Burrito
|Burger King's Whopper with Cheese
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:
|Perdue Ground Chicken Breast
|Trader Joe's Ground Pork 80% Lean 20% Fat
|Johnsonville Smoked Sausage Beef Hot Links
Baby food with high phthalate levels:
|General Mills Cheerios Original
|Gerber Mealtime for Baby Harvest Turkey Dinner in a glass jar
|Similac Advance Infant Milk-Based Powder Formula
|Beech-Nut Fruities Pouch Pear, Banana & Raspberries
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."
- Consumer Reports. The Plastic Chemicals Hiding in Your Food.
- Consumer Reports. Fast Food Companies Are Replacing One Toxic Chemical With Another.
- PLOS One. Bisphenol-A and phthalate metabolism in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
- FDA. Phthalates in Food Packaging and Food Contact Applications.
- FDA. FDA Limits the Use of Certain Phthalates in Food Packaging and Issues Request for Information About Current Food Contact Uses and Safety Data.
- FDA. Requests FDA remove its prior sanction of five ortho-phthalates and ban eight ortho-phthalates.
- FDA. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.