Pollutants in food packaging - you need to know!

Foods packed in cans, tetrapaks, plastic, cellophane films and cardboard boxes fill the shelves in our supermarkets. The long shelf life of these products allows us a good stockpiling. It is little known that some packaging can cause unwanted substances, some of which are poisonous, to enter the food.

Packaging may contain undesirable substances

Packaged foods have become indispensable in our daily lives. They offer many advantages in our environment, which is characterized by time and hectic rush, because they:

  • are good for stockpiling
  • are easily accessible on the shelves
  • offer desired portion sizes
  • are easy to transport

New packaging is constantly being developed which is particularly user-friendly and facilitates the handling of the products. Accordingly, the use of new technologies and raw materials is needed. Unfortunately, some of these raw materials still have no idea what their effects on our health are.

In most cases, we only take unwanted substances that enter the food via the packaging in very small quantities, which are generally harmless to health. Nevertheless, some handle should not remain unreflective in the food shelf.

Wrapped in plastic

Whether sausage or cheese, sweets, bread or fruit, we can get almost any food in foil or plastic. The food sector uses a variety of plastics. These include, for example, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and rigid PVC. In the form of foils, blister packs and other forms of packaging, our food is coated with plastic.

Again and again there are reports that substances from the plastics can pass into the food. In part, these are unwanted toxic substances.

The following packaging materials are particularly critical:

  • vinyl chloride
  • Epoxidized Soybean Oil (ESBO)
  • tin
  • BADGE (bisphenol A diglycidyl ether)
  • Phthalic acid esters (phthalates)
  • FTOH (fluorotelomer alcohols)

Below you will find the effects of different substances explained in detail.

vinyl chloride

Vinyl chloride is the starting material for the production of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is used as a protective coating for coated food packaging, films and laminates. Vinyl chloride is suspected to have a weak genetic damage, cancer-promoting effect. It is mainly to promote liver sarcoma, as toxins are mainly processed in the liver.

However, reliable findings suggesting a cancer-causing potency are still lacking. Nevertheless, for precautionary reasons for this substance, the transition to food must not be detectable.

Epoxidized Soybean Oil (ESBO)

ESBO is used as a vegetable softener and stabilizer for PVC, especially in cover sealing compounds and drawing foils. It can make up to 40 percent of the sealant in lids of canned food and glass jars.

Decisive for a transition of the ESBO into the food is the direct contact with the food as well as its fat content. Large quantities of ESBO can be converted into high-oily foods such as pesto, olive paste and oiled vegetables.

At the beginning of 2005, ESBO was detected in numerous food packaged in screw-top jars, including infant formula. So far, there is insufficient data to assess the health significance of ESBO for humans.

There is, however, evidence of toxicity upon repeated contact with ESBO. The permitted daily intake was set at 1 mg per kg of body weight.

Since the daily intake threshold for infants is significantly lower and, for example, baby food in glasses could contain ESBO, it is currently being discussed to set a maximum level of detectable ESBO in food packaging.


Be it vegetables, fruit or fish, the good old can has its firm place in the food shelf. It has long been known that tinned tinplate canned food can transfer tin to the can contents when air enters. Tin is a heavy metal that is relatively non-toxic.

However, intake of larger amounts can lead to diarrhea and vomiting. Food made of tinned tinplate cans should therefore be processed quickly and leftovers in another container to be transferred.

However, the danger of absorbing high concentrations of tin is generally very low, since German manufacturers mainly use tin cans with an inner coating or coating.

BADGE (bisphenol A diglycidyl ether)

But coatings and coatings may also contain undesirable substances, for example BADGE (bisphenol A diglycidyl ether). BADGE is a plasticizer that can be released from the interior paints of food cans to the contents.

Examinations in Switzerland and Germany, for example, found high contents in the oil pouring of canned fish as well as in canned food with a tear-open lid. Presumably, the plasticizer serves to achieve optimum flexibility of the paint.

BADGE is suspected of altering the hormonal balance of humans through an antiandrogenic effect. An originally assumed risk of cancer or health could not be confirmed so far. Nevertheless, the European Commission has set a limit of 1 mg per kg of food.

Phthalic acid esters (phthalates)

Phthalates are used as plasticisers for PVC, polystyrene and other plastics. They are added to the materials to optimize their ductility and processability. The most common phthalate is DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate).

Phthalates have not been extensively tested and evaluated toxicologically. They are likely to have a weak estrogen-like effect in the hormonal balance of humans and thus act on the development of the genital organs. They are also suspected of promoting diabetes in men.

However, since its regulation in 2015, DEHP has only been used in medical packaging, in food packaging the substance should no longer be detected. Instead of the presumably harmful DEHP, only DINP (diisononyl phthalate) is used there, which should be less of a concern.

In general, however, the amounts of phthalates we receive through the environment or through food are so low that the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has estimated the health risk to be very low.

Only 1.5 percent of the infants studied in a study could detect an increased amount of phthalates in the body, which was probably related to permanent oral contact with plastic toys.

Food in cardboard boxes

Pizza and hamburgers are available as fast food on every corner. Of course, there is the cardboard box so that the food arrives safely at home. To prevent cartons and papers from softening in use, they are often coated with perfluorochemicals because they are grease and water repellent.

Investigations have shown that the perfluorochemicals can contain as contaminants FTOH (fluorotelomer alcohols). These are suspected to move on to the food and so get into the human body, where the substance can accumulate due to the slow rate of degradation.

Little is known about the health risk to the consumer. However, based on results from animal experiments, the substance is classified as critical.

How can we protect ourselves?

To protect the consumer, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) sets maximum quantities and limit values ​​for substances of health concern. Research is also being conducted in the field of food safety, with the aim, among other things, of developing new technologies for the production of foodstuffs and packaging that guarantee a high level of consumer safety while maintaining the same level of efficiency.

Especially for critical products, such as fatty foods and infant foods in glass jars with screw cap, many manufacturers have already responded and refrain from these questionable substances. But also the critical buying behavior of consumers is in demand.

5 Tips to Avoid Contaminants in Packaging

In almost all conventional packaging traces of substances can be processed that evaporate into the environment, onto our articles of daily use and on food.

The lasting damage to health or increased carcinogenicity could not be clearly demonstrated in most substances. However, the ingestion of these substances in large quantities is not healthy remains undisputed.

If you do without plastic wrapped goods as much as possible, you do not have to worry about possible poisoning. To avoid phthalates and Co. in everyday life, we have put together these 5 tips:

  1. Prefer products with alternative glass and paper packaging.
  2. Use the so-called "loose goods" more often. Buy, for example, in the bakery, at the sausage and cheese counter or at the fruit and vegetable stand unpackaged goods.
  3. Whenever possible, prepare food fresh and refrain from packaged convenience foods and frozen foods.
  4. Pay particular attention to fatty foods on their packaging.
  5. At the same time, pack shrink-wrapped foods in glass containers and the like at home.
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