How much do you know about plastic of food packaging?

Plastic is everywhere, is part of our daily life. This material has reached all corners because its many forms and uses. This plasticity has been achieved by mixing many components, which in turn make recycling very difficult. Among all this plastic, food packaging represents 40% of production.


Therefore, I want to ask you:

How much do we know about all the components that form these containers?

Food packaging fulfills specific functions such as contain, protect, inform and attract. Always with the idea of ​​satisfying consumer demands. In addition, many containers have been modified to achieve: packaging in modified atmospheres, aseptic packaging, active packaging…

However, the complex nature of plastics in terms of polymer composition demands to the food industry to proof the safety of the container through studies of migration from the container to the food. There are hundreds of plastics, but only a few have been authorized to be used in contact with food, and these are:

Bhunia et al., 2013

In addition, they add additives to improve the functions of these polymers during their manufacture, such as: plasticizers, antioxidants, light stabilizers … This is why it is quite complex to quantify the safety of the material in particular, because of the amount of variables that play a roll.

Therefore are aimed the migration assays. It is important to emphasize first of all, that the migration to food also depends on many qualities of the food itself. For example, many substances are fat-soluble, that is, they tend to accumulate in fat. Therefore, in some cases, migration is greater if the food has a high percentage of fat.

But I will try to explain them and talk objectively about each substance, then I will talk about its potential risk or safety.


1. Plasticides

These are a group of compounds used to improve the flexibility of the container. They are also used, for example, for adhesive tapes. The selection of this polymer will be based on the final product. These are some of the most used plasticizers: DPP, DEHA, DBP, DEHP, DiBP, DEP, DCHP, DBP, DOA, ATBC, BBP, DEHP, HAD, DHA and HOA

For example, DEHA (di- (ethylhexyl) adipate), is present in PVC, and can migrate to fatty foods, is regulated for a maximum of 0.3 mg / kg of body weight / day. Although it has low toxicity in humans, there are studies where they observed that high doses have a negative effect in rats.

Due to their low molecular weight, these substances can easily migrate to the food. Some of them, such as phthalates are used in PVC, PVA and PE and there are studies that show a migration to food.


For example, in 2011 it was shown that there was migration of DiBP and DBP in baby bottles, with amounts of up to 50 to 150 μg / kg. On these substances there is no clear consensus on their toxicity, on the one hand they have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, that means that they interact with the hormonal system in different ways (for example with reproductive toxicity), however, it is not known if these doses they have influence or not in humans.

But there have been more cases where phthalates have been found, such as in the PVC lids that close the glass containers in contact with high-fat foods. Also in the plastic bags that surround the bread or yogurt containers.

There are still many more studies to be done, the European regulation (EU 10/2011), allows a maximum of 1.5 mg / kg for DEHP, 18 mg / kg for DEHA, 0.3 mg / kg for DBP and 30 mg / kg for BBP. And since these substances depend on many circumstances (composition of the food, composition of the container …) it was determined that PVC can not be used in the microwave due to its high migration.

2. Antioxidants

They are resin polymers used in order to prevent plastic degradation when exposed to UV rays. This happens, especially in food packaging, also after the exposure of these to heat, such as the microwave.

The following antioxidants have been found in liquids, chocolates and rice: BHA, BHT, Cyanox 2246, Irganox 1035, Irganox 1010, Irganox 1330, Irganox 1076 and Irgafos 168. It is not really long since they are being used, and therefore, not well known if there is a risk for health.

protect from UV light in a water bottle

3. Stabilizers to heat

They are used to prevent the thermal degradation of the plastic to heat during the cooking. They are used for example in PVC, PVDC, but only a few can be used, since almost everything is potentially toxic.

In addition, previously, they used potentially toxic ones such as cadmium or mercury, but are now prohibited.

4. Slip agents

They are used to reduce the viscosity of the surface. In this case fats (oleamides, stearamides, erucamides, steril erucamide, and oleil palmitamide) are used, since they keep the surface of the plastic lubricated to prevent them from sticking together. Above all, high levels of migration of these fats were found in olive oil and in water bottles, as well as in plastic film.

In some cases, especially LDPE plastics (low density polyethylene), used in plastic cups, diapers, bottles … migration has come to occur in 95% in the case of esteramids.

5. Other monomers and oligomers

The structure of plastic is composed of large molecules, called monomers and oligomers, which tend to migrate to food. In addition, they are usually found in products with high fat content such as yogurt, milk, cheese …

It is really these substances that have high risks for human health and is regulated by European regulation EU 10/2011.


The best known among these is Bisphenol A or BPA that has a cytotoxic effect on humans. Bisphenol A has been detected in cans and PC bottles, with migration to food. The toxicity on this compound has effects on the male and female reproductive systems, on the brain, metabolism and cardiovascular system, on the thyroid and the immune system. As well as carcinogenic effects (especially related to prostate and breast cancer)

Also PET containers, which contain oligomers that can migrate in a percentage of 0.06% to 1%.

Finally, very recently, scientist are beginning to pay attention to a substance called styrene. Of styrene produced at industrial level about 50-60% of it is intended for the manufacture of polystyrene containers. Recently, in 2016 the National Toxicology Program classified it as a “rationally anticipated carcinogen” and known the feasibility of the migration of styrene monomers, it is considered important the determination of this substance as a warning and prevention of future damages against the Human health.

Is it in our food?

Actually, as you might have read, what we most eat are these additives. Yes, we are eating them. Anyway, the plastic intended for food is well studied and controlled, but still, studies continue to emerge that urge more tests and studies on toxicity.

Yes, we are eating plastic and, although many components can be innocuous, it is necessary to conduct more toxicological studies to be completely safe. Moreover, most of the time, plastic is completely unnecessary

Actually, it was not so long ago that the toxicity of Bisphenol A was discovered, and new substances are still appearing. In addition, there is a general consensus among scientists who demand more studies, specifically in humans, since almost all the results are collected in rats. So far, in health terms, with some exceptions, plastic can be harmful but stills need to be studied in detail.

Other plastics

What happens with the plastic not destined to the food industry? In this case, I would like to know how controlled it is …Anyway, the toxicity of plastics that are not aimed for food packaging is also important to be taken into account. This will be fragmented into microplastics and end up in the oceans, recycling is not the solution and many monomers / additives can be potentially toxic.

In the end we can only ask ourselves, is it really necessary that all our food come in plastic? not only because of its toxicity, but because of the amount of garbage ..

coconut wrapped in plastic, is it necessary?

I leave this documentary, which also explains it very well!


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