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It’s hardly news that most processed foods aren’t great for you. Grocery shelves are lined with products low in vitamins and minerals that are pumped with harmful fats and huge amounts of sodium. But have you ever considered their packaging? According to a growing number of environmental scientists, you should.
Commentary recently published in the “Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health” suggests that various chemicals used in the packaging, storage, and processing of everyday foods could be seriously detrimental to your health after years of exposure. We asked Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, to explain.
"The big picture takeaway is that our food is coming packaged in a variety of materials, and things like plastic can contain five to 30 chemicals or components," Lunder said. "A lot of these chemicals, the ones we know of, are chemicals that are concerning to human health. But [they’re] also subtle—a lot of these exposures go relatively unnoticed."
Here are a few products that have Lunder and other scientists concerned:
1. Canned Foods
"Nearly every canned food that you buy in the United States right now is lined with BPA," Lunder said. "And that has been found in tests to be leaching into foods."
BPA, or bisphenol A, is used in products that prevent rusting, giving it a longer shelf life. But the substance itself behaves like estrogen and has been found to disrupt hormones in laboratory animals. It can alter the fetal development of reproductive systems and the brain, and may increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer. It’s also suspected of increasing one’s likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.
2. Microwaved Plastic Containers
You should probably stop microwaving those plastic Chinese takeout containers. According to Lunder, heating plastic may change its molecular bonds, allowing whatever chemicals in it to leach into food. And don’t be fooled by “microwave-safe” plastics—that usually just means that the container won’t melt while it’s zapped.
"I don’t think it’s possible to make plastic that won’t leach at all in the microwave," Lunder said. "I suggest only microwaving in glass."
3. Microwavable Popcorn Bags
Those bags of Orville Redenbacher and other popcorn brands are lined with fluoride-based chemicals that prevent the oil from seeping into the paper, Lunder said. When microwaved, they could seep into your food.
4. Lids of Glass Jars
The lids of many commercially-processed glass jars are lined with BPA to prevent the metal from rusting. Lunden said many of these jars are heated and sealed to sterilize them, which could cause BPA to seep into the product.
But Lunden says the answer isn’t simply stop using these products, which are ubiquitous. “It’s not effective and it’s not going to be possible,” she explained. Consumers need to demand that companies rethink their packaging. It’s worked before—in 2008, the water bottle company Nalgene stopped using a BPA-laden plastic after a public uproar.
"I think [this issue is] outrageous and an uproar is justifiable," Lunden said. "But there’s a reason these problems are going undetected—we’re not looking.”