What Health Risks Do Fast-Food Packages Pose?


5 Min Read

Fast foods are mostly unhealthy, despite their convenience and enticing flavors. Not only is the food toxic, so are their packaging materials. These can seep into the food and cause health issues. Phthalates lining recycled cardboard and paper boxes, and bisphenol in recycled plastic packaging are the culprits. Problems include neural and hormonal disruptions, impotency, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.

Be it a pizza, burger, or wrap, resisting that neat little package of high-calorie, gooey delight can seem like a Herculean feat – even when we know it’s no good for us. But the ill effects of fast food don’t end with the morsels we put into our mouth. Fast foods are also mostly a packaged experience, done up in paper, foil, or plastic with the aim of being easy to use, handle, and dispose. But now research is bringing to light that it’s not just fast food that can cause us harm – even the oh-so-convenient packaging poses health risks.

With any food that is packaged, there is a certain level of migration from packaging to food that is natural. But the effects of this migration may be harmful in the long run depending on the material used. Here is a look at some of the common packaging materials used in fast food and their possible side effects.

Paper And Cardboard Packaging

Whether it’s a pizza tray, a burger box, or Chinese takeaway containers, most fast foods are packaged in recycled cardboard and paper boxes. These often contain toxic phthalates that are harmful beyond a certain limit. One study shows that chemical reactions that take place when hot food is placed in containers such as pizza boxes expose the food to up to 70 micrograms of diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) at a time.1

Phthalates such as dibutyl phthalate (DBP) are also found in plasticizers, substances that are added to plastics to increase its flexibility. These are used to line paper bags or boxes. Studied extensively in rodents, DBP was shown to have a detrimental effect on their liver function and reproductive systems.2 Although there is no conclusive evidence yet to show the impact on humans, researchers do concede that this area needs further study. According to an Australian Government Department of Health factsheet, “While human studies are limited, the adverse effects on the development and function of the reproductive system in experimental animals are considered relevant to humans, where exposure to DBP occurs during the critical stages of development.”3

A study by Zota et al. also traced a connection between fast-food intake and phthalate exposure, implicating the packaging in the residues of phthalates found in the participants’ urine samples.4 DEHP, another phthalate found in packaging, can cause endocrine disruption5 and is tagged as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in a report published by the National Toxicology Program.6 According to an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report, high levels of phthalate exposure could lead to reproductive issues and neurodevelopmental disruptions.7

Recycled Packaging

With a desire to do their bit for the environment, many fast food joints offer recycled packaging. The ingestion of residual printing ink found in these can increase to exposure to phthalates, benzophenones, and mineral oils – all implicated in hormone disruption.8

Plastic Packaging

From takeaway boxes and bags to juices and drinks, plastic packaging is quite the norm in the food delivery industry. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy-based resins – both used extensively in plastic packaging or to line metal cans. Studies report that people who eat a lot of fast food have higher levels of BPA in their systems than others.9

A number of studies have also been conducted on animals to understand the possible effects of BPA.10 Abnormal levels of BPA are thought to affect the endocrine function as well as estrogen receptors in the body.

Extended Exposure To BPA Could Lead To Following Medical Problems

  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Possible impotence
  • Early menstruation in young girls
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Immune system issues
  • Changes in neurobehavior

While it may not always be possible to give up on fast food, remember that the risks here are double pronged – our body is in harm’s way through the food and the packaging too! If you can’t rein in your fast food cravings, try and transfer the food to containers made with glass or unlined stainless steel wherever possible.

References   [ + ]

1.Bononi, Monica, and Fernando Tateo. “Identification of diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) suspected as possible contaminant in recycled cellulose for take‐away pizza boxes.” Packaging technology and science 22, no. 1 (2009): 53-58.
2, 3.Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Department of Health, National Industrial Chemicals.
4, 9.Zota, Ami R., Cassandra Phillips, and Susanna D. Mitro. “Recent fast food consumption and bisphenol A and phthalates exposures among the US population in NHANES, 2003-2010.” Environmental Health Perspectives (2016).
5.Claudio, L., 2012. Our food: packaging & public health. Environmental health perspectives, 120(6), p.a232.
6.US Department of Health and Human Services. “13th Report on Carcinogens.” Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons- National Toxicology Program.
7.No, ACOG Committee Opinion. “Exposure to toxic environmental agents.” Fertility and Sterility 100, no. 4 (2013): 931-934.
8.Claudio, Luz. “Our food: packaging & public health.” Environmental health perspectives 120, no. 6 (2012): a232.
10.Plastics that May Be Harmful to Children and Reproductive Health, Environmen and Human Health.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.