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New study spotlights prevalence of concerning chemicals in food products: 'It seems clear that they can harm us'

"The levels did not depend on packaging type, and no one particular type of food."

"The levels did not depend on packaging type, and no one particular type of food."

Photo Credit: iStock

Think you know what's in your food? Even the healthiest eaters may be surprised by the amount of plastic they consume each day.

What's happening?

Consumer Reports, a nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to independent product testing, recently tested 85 foods for bisphenols and phthalates, or "plasticizers: a chemical used to make plastic more flexible and durable." 

Consumer Reports tested for 10 phthalates, three chemicals used as phthalate substitutes, and three bisphenols.

The result? Plasticizers were present in nearly all the foods tested, including fast-food meals, organic products, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and more.

"The levels did not depend on packaging type, and no one particular type of food — say, dairy products or prepared meals — was more likely than another to have them," said Lauren F. Friedman, who leads the health and food content team at Consumer Reports.

For example, Fairlife Core Power High Protein Milk Shake, Del Monte Sliced Peaches in 100% Fruit Juice, and Chicken of the Sea Pink Salmon in Water all had over 20,000 total phthalates per serving.

Why is plasticizer prevalence important?

Repeated exposure to plasticizers has been linked to a range of health issues over time, including infertility, diabetes, and heart complications, even when amounts fall within U.S. safety guidelines. Growing evidence links low doses accumulated through food sources to endocrine disruption, and other chronic disease risks decades down the line.

"Unlike a plane crash, where everyone dies at once, the people who die from these die over many years," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and the director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. 

"The more we learn about these chemicals, including how widespread they are, the more it seems clear that they can harm us even at very low levels," said Tunde Akinleye, the CR scientist who oversaw CR's tests.

These plasticizers make their way not just into our food, but they also accumulate in the air, soil, and water from production and processing pollution. That means these chemicals course through both our bodies and the natural environments we depend on for survival.

Wildlife suffers reproductive issues and population decline from phthalate exposure, threatening biodiversity critical to balanced ecosystems that sustain human health and happiness.

This plastic problem impacts every living thing on our increasingly fragile planet. Microplastics have even been found in Antarctica.

What can I do to help plasticizer prevalence?

Thankfully, consumer pressure can still prompt companies to phase out dangerous materials. Since testing began in the 1990s, BPA levels have decreased in popular products such as toys in response to shoppers' demands for safety — but not yet in the plastic packaging of food. 

Let's use our wallets to show big brands that we value ethical practices aligned with environmental health.

Purchasing fresh, whole foods minimally packaged in plastic demonstrates market demand for sustainable choices that nurture people, animals, and ecosystems. Seeking out makers that avoid plasticizers displays our collective wish for transparent production that puts safety before profit.

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