Once upon a time in a parallel universe far away, perfection reigned. Not one human on planet H-trae ever hungered or ailed because all nourishment sprouted instantly on the dining table from pure distilled water and nonchemical resources. Violating the laws of physics prevailing throughout the known world, nutrients were not chemicals but rather something called food, all functional through a sustainable physiology. The laws of thermodynamics as mechanical engineers had created them were suspended on this distant venue so that no matter or energy was ever lost. Obviously, since the nutrient-laden food was grown on site, no transport was ever required and, therefore, no enveloping protection was ever needed.
On this edenic orbiter, all creatures were so well nourished that no disease or illness ever interrupted the routine of life, and so progress was measured by solely creative outputs. A wondrous existence prevailed.
But on H-trae’s mirror image across the firmament, physicochemical laws appeared to actually operate, as reported in a cover story from the Aug. 31, 2009 issue of Chemical and Engineering News titled “Chemicals Leach from Packaging.” On this not-so-far-away spinning sphere, nutrients were chemical cocktails with form, appearance, and flavor subject to deteriorative reactions with the environment and limited in their availability. Despite the loud orations of some, imperfections had to be corrected immediately: Energy was to come directly from a star they called “sun” (which, not incidentally, has a finite life). All mass was to be ideally converted into energy or more mass. And, goodness forbid, no food was to be contained and distributed for fear of the dreaded “chemicals.”
According to author Sarah Everts, earlier this year, a race of earthlings known as Germans were subjected to a chemical called 4-methylbenzphenone due to passage from external decorating inks through paperboard and into their precious chocolate muesli. Now we have no clue as to how this chemical actually got through the internal barrier to the cereal, or the effect on human biochemistry, but the fact is that measurable quantities made it through.
“Even when the wrapping comes off, you inevitably ingest some of the container,” states Everts in the article. “It’s not a question of whether packaging components will leach into a product, it’s a question of how much.”
With superb analytical instruments and protocols, we can quantify the migrants, but, to date, we have not been able to ascertain the effects on humans of every entity which all of us call chemicals—some with reverence and others with disdain.
So-called leachables can come from many different sources: from the actual chemistry of the package material, from monomer building blocks, from chemicals intentionally added to enhance functionality, from incidentals acquired during the distribution cycle, from processing, or from space debris from the planet H-trae, for all we know. Immediately, all are suspect because, according to the “all knowing,” all “chemicals” are adverse and hazardous.
Since about 70% of all food is in contact with plastics at some time during its journey from growing site to mouth, obviously these man-made “synthetic” polymers must be the most common villains.
The latest infamous actor of the day on this planet, anyway, is bisphenol A (BPA)—the building block of polycarbonate, the material used to fabricate protective football, hockey, baseball and bicycling helmets, as well as bulk dispensing water bottles used by airport security people, but hardly ever for daily use. (At a recent food event, organizers distributed reusable polyester bottles to fill with water dispensed from polycarbonate carboys to accommodate the sustainability—or is it the purity?—of those in attendance.)
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BPA is also a component of epoxies applied to the interiors of metal cans. BPA is alleged as an endocrine disruptor in the human body on this planet and said to be responsible for all manner of human disorders, ranging from obesity to prostate cancer and diabetes, even parts per trillion entries. Debates the effects of BPA have filled papers, Internet sites, television news reports, and legislative and regulatory offices and halls for the past several years. Canada has banned BPA in baby bottles. California just rejected a ban. FDA is studying the issue with a promise of conclusion later this year. Even Food Technology has published on the topic.
Monomers and Polymers
Before BPA were acrylonitrile monomers—the alleged carcinogenic disruptor of polyacrylonitrile polymers used for carbonated beverage and beer bottles until 1977. Throughout the history of food packaging, other packaging materials include vinyl chloride monomer, which was removed from use as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) liquor and water bottles during the 1960s (while continuing in use for myriad other purposes); plasticizers for PVC films (still used today for meat wrapping); polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC or saran) because of its hydrogen chloride; Irganox phenolic antioxidants in polyethylene; fluorocarbon fat barriers in paperboard and paper; wax hamburger separator papers; and microwaveable popcorn susceptor adhesives that migrate at elevated temperatures. Need this list be extended to infinity? Regulatory officials, heeding the teachings of professional toxicologists, have permitted the application of these commercial plastics to contain food—at least on this corner of this planet.
Thrust into this melee have been a phalanx of glass makers and their publicists who insist that if all packaging converted to their favorite material, all would be well. But, points out author Everts, even glass leaches minerals, a topic thoroughly aired and proven during the 1970s’ investigations of the merits of plastic vs glass for carbonated beverage packaging. Further, glass packages require closure, which is usually provided by (horrors!) plastic or even rubber seals. And as many chemists can attest, rubber consists of chemicals such as N-nitrosamines and carbon black, which contains polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (carcinogenic, of course).
On the other hand, minute coatings of glass seem to protect many plastics from leaching—not exactly the application the glass bottle folks have in mind, but nevertheless, glass.
Inks and Coatings
Inks and coatings usually far removed from foods are capable of offset in the rolls into which they are wound for distribution to packaging equipment. The externally applied chemicals touch the internal surfaces of the plastic or paperboard material, and thus small quantities can be transferred to the food-contact surfaces. Simultaneously, printing inks and so-called protective coatings are capable of migrating through almost all plastic package materials—especially porous paperboard and microperforated films or polyolefinic plastic.
Sterilization processes, e.g., gamma radiation, can produce not-so-trivial quantities of hazardous chemicals in the packaging applied for products such as coffee lighteners, bulk fruit, and ice cream mixes. And then there are ethylene oxide and (believe it or not) steam sterilants. Is nothing inviolable?
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Regulations on Migrants
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long had regulations covering package materials and all their ingredients and adjuncts in contact with food, with specifics on function. FDA publishes an extensive list of materials permitted in packaging that will be contact with foods, based on scientific evidence of migration levels and potential human harm. Included in the rules are environmental conditions of use such as in microwave heating; amounts that might be expected to transfer from the package into the contained food in normal distribution channels classified by aqueous, lipid, and /or acidic; expected food consumption patterns; and metabolic pathways. Assumptions are made that there is no zero migration and that all chemicals—even chemicals that comprise food—have a toxic level.
What Are the Solutions?
If we assume that leaching of chemicals from package materials is a major threat to human existence and survival, then we must act at once. One telling questioning line: Epidemiological data and correlations are fascinating exercises in statistical analysis. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also has been correlated epidemiologically to the BPA-caused problems. Are these two oddly different sources the causes of all our ills in this imperfect world? Or might “processed foods” or “chemicals” also be implicated? What type of food did we consume in past generations when we lived an average of 30 years on diets of homegrown fresh vegetables and fruit or when our preserved foods containing chemical additives such as sodium chloride, disaccharide, ethyl alcohol, or acetic acid were in tin-coated steel cans or glass jars?
When the record is written of analyses of foods on this planet during the 21st century of mostly recorded history, what will the results show about the chemical content of raw food? Which of these examples of raw food are pure and free from all those long-named chemicals? On the one hand, we learn that with sucrose, pure is not as good as cane syrup, which in my youth was called molasses, a gemish of contaminants from processing. On the other hand, we read that the ethylenic fragments, also natural constituents of fruit respiration when from polyethylene package structures, are not good. Which, if any of these foods, are free of contaminants from the very same cosmic and environmental sources that disturb our packaged foods?
Is living really better on H-trae than on twin Earth just because there they have discovered the secrets of obviating food processing, packaging, and distribution and thus avoided all those minute quantities of oddly named chemicals? Does a single molecule of a chemical constitute a hazard? We know that most of our nutrients are better applied when in the framework of food rather than when alone and pristine. Today, our alternatives to potential migrants seem to reside in the very hydrocarbon polymers that are so loudly condemned even as they provide protection from a hostile natural environment.
To paraphrase a few clichés, beware of getting what you yearn and fight for as it may deliver food whose very natural content is more hazardous than the functional package materials that have been banned over minutia.