Can fast-food packaging like burrito, burger and pastry wrappers, along with pizza and French fry boxes, really increase your cancer risk? A certain family of chemicals helps keeping grease from dripping through the fast-food packaging and onto your hands and clothes. But as it turns out, about a third of the fast-food containers tested contain grease-repelling coatings made of perfluorinated chemicals, according to a 2017 study and accompanying report.
These chemical compounds, also known as PFCs and PFASs, are linked to cancer, developmental issues, reproductive damage, compromised immune system function and other health problems. The persistent chemicals readily migrate from the wrappers and boxes and into your food. In fact, the heat and grease of the food actually encourages the leaching.
Yes, it is true that some PFCs, including those used to make Teflon pans and 3M’s Scotchgard, have been banned or phased out as hazardous. But there’s another issue. Chemical companies quickly pivoted and flooded the market with new-generation PFCs that haven’t been property tested. In fact, they may be just as toxic as their chemical cousins. (1)
This kind of reminds me of BPA toxic effects. The the science concluded BPA to be blatantly toxic, companies started manufacturing a related compound know as bisphenol S, or BPA. Turns out, it’s just as hormonally active and toxic, or possibly even more toxic, than the chemical it aimed to replace. (2)
The kicker in all of this? The nonstick, grease-proofing PFC chemicals are completely unnecessary. PFC-free wrappers, paperboard and boxes are readily available in the fast-food container market.
“We don’t know enough about the safety of the new generation of PFCs. We know there are dangers of exposure to some of these chemicals at extremely low doses, especially during critical windows of child development. A woman who eats fast food frequently during her pregnancy might consume enough of these chemicals to affect the future health of her child.” — Bill Walker, Environmental Working Group managing editor and co-author of the report
According to the report, DuPont acknowledges that one of these replacement chemicals actually does cause cancerous tumors in lab animals.
“These molecules are very long-lived in the environment, and simply don’t break down easily and go away.Consumer products like papers that are treated with PFAS will decompose long before the treatment does and these chemicals will enter the environment directly from our landfills. This type of long-lived chemical just isn’t a sustainable practice: once it is made, it doesn’t go away.” — Graham Peaslee, University of Notre Dame physicist
Clearly, most of us already know that ultra-processed fast foods are unhealthy. They’re often full of dangerous inflammatory oils, factory farmed meats and pesticide-laden potatoes. The fact that about a third of fast-food packaging is coated with toxic chemicals is just another reason to avoid the drive-thru.
Details of the Chemicals in Fast-Food Packaging Study
The 2017 study appeared in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers tested fast food packaging samples collected form 2014 to 2015. The paperboard, sandwich and burger wrapper and dessert and bread wrapper samples came from stores in the Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Grand Rapids areas. (3)
How to Avoid Toxic Nonstick Chemicals in the Food Supply
It’s virtually impossible to completely avoid toxic nonstick PFC chemicals. They’re ubiquitous in the environment — and inside most of us. Until our country’s antiquated chemical safety laws are updated to better protect us, it’ll be impossible to avoid these chemicals.
For instance, the Food and Drug Administration should close the loophole that allows companies to self-certify chemicals as Generally Recognized as Safe. In the meantime, you can still drastically lower your exposure of PFCs on a personal level by:
- Eat fresh meals you prep as home as much as possible.
- Avoiding paper tableware. (It’s often coated in these grease-proofing chemicals.)
- Steer clear of microwave popcorn. The bags are often coated with PFCs. Just make it the old-fashioned way on the stovetop.
- Avoid nonstick dental floss, like Oral-B Glide.
It’s Not Just Fast-Food Packaging: Other Fast-Food Threats
The fast-food containers study comes on the heels of other concerning news about fast food. And antibiotics in fast food report found only 2 of the top 25 chains get an “A” for policies of antibiotics in food.
I also created this list of 10 chain restaurants you should never eat at. I based it mainly on gluten- and GMO-packed ingredients, excess calories and farmed fish, in addition to the antibiotic issue. (Here are the best fast casual restaurants, although I can’t guarantee that all of these companies source safer fast-food packaging.) Case-in-point: Cook your own food from scratch as much as possible, since we have such little control over fast-food packaging threats.
Final Thoughts on Fast-Food Packaging
- Certain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are still detected in fast-food containers.
- PFCs are used to “grease-proof” containers, but the chemicals readily migrate into hot, greasy foods.
- PFCs are linked to cancer, abnormal development in children, thyroid and cholesterol problems and immune system disfunction, among other things.
- Some older PFCs have been banned, but hundreds of replacements have not been adequately tested for long-term impact on human health.
- PFC-free fast-food packaging is readily available.
- These chemicals also hide out in many paper plates and bowls, nonstick floss, nonstick pots and pans and microwave popcorn bags.