Metals and Toxins in food packaging
If you’ve eaten bhel off newsprint, idli chutney packed in ordinary plastic or bought atta with a coloured printed label inside the bag you could have ingested metallic and chemical toxins. Regular consumption of these poisons even in traces can have a negative impact on your health. The ingredients used to make plastics include dyes, metals, resins, plasticisers (primarily phthalates), dioxin, benzene, antioxidants and stabilisers, all which can migrate into foodstuff if the plastic is not of food-grade quality. Our bodies cannot deal with this, certainly not in the long-term. ‘Such toxic substances can get concentrated in the gall bladder or the kidneys and can lead to diseases of these organs,’ says Dr. Purvish Parikh, Head of Department, Medical Oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital.
Carciogenic Properties: Lead, which is found in abundance in newsprint is a known carcinogenic and is harmful even if ingested in small quantities. It leads to gastro-intestinal, renal, neurological symptoms as well as anemia. ‘Lead enters the blood and is stored in the bone marrow,’ explains Dr. S.H. Advani, Medical Oncologist and Haematologist. Children absorb lead more easily than adults and are thus more susceptible. Cadmium, another carcinogenic, accumulates in the kidneys. Substances like dioxins, phthalates and benzene which are all present in plastic are also stored in body organs if consumed over a long period of time. They can cause cancer of these organs. ‘Benzene is a well-known carcinogenic,’ says Dr. Advani.
The Laws: As the leaching of these poisons into food and water from non-food grade plastics has been well established, Indian food laws make it mandatory to serve and package food and water in food grade materials. The laws state that manufacturers have to use materials like PET (polythylenetetrepthalate), glass and aluminum foils to package food. In fact, all packing material of plastic origin has to pass the overall migration and colour migration limits as laid down in the various Indian Standards Acts. There is soon to be yet another food law – the central government has proposed the Food Safety and Standards Act 2005 to harmonize the existing food laws. It is expected to become law in the next session of parliament. Besides the various laws, we also have government organisations like the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) which set stringent standards for products and packaging and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which is responsible for the implementation of certain food and drug laws. There are also our ministries – the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs and the Ministry of Food Processing Industries.
Harmful Packaging: Yet everyday millions of Indians are being slowly poisoned by eating food packed and served in non-food grade materials. And there’s worse news. Foods that are highly acidic (pickles) or which contain alcohol or fats (wine, cheese, butter, oil) need a different quality of food-grade plastic because plasticisers leach more easily into these foods. For acidic foods glass is the safest. Our food laws are not as stringent as those in the EU and do allow for plastic (of a particular grade) for packing foods like sauces and pickles but many reputed manufacturers prefer glass. This is because leaching of plastic into foods not only changes the taste of the food packed in it, it also increase chances of spoilage, specially during hot Indian summers.
In fact the real test of a product, even if it is packed in food-grade material is when it is tested directly from the shop shelf as hostile weather conditions can affect it’s safety. Even a safe material like tin can deteriorate at high temperatures (over 35 degrees centigrade) and if the food is stored for a considerable length of time, a very slow corrosion process can start inside the can. This is why consuming a packaged food past it’s expiry date can be harmful.
Consumer Apathy: Most well-known brands are tend to adhere to the laws and sometimes go a step beyond that, if only because they know that watchdog organisations will come down heavily on them if they don’t. Consumers too train their guns on big companies rather than bother with little known manufacturers. ‘We don’t usually receive complaints about the unorganised sector,’ admits Advocate Rajesh Shukla who works for the Consumer Guidance Society which handles consumers’ complaints about defective products and services. He adds that court proceedings can be time-consuming and people do not want to waste their time on next-door aunties who cook a few hundred dhoklas or idlis a day, even if they are cooled on newsprint and packed in thin plastic bags.
Companies don’t test products off the shelf: However big names fall short when it comes to testing their products directly from the shop-shelf. ‘Picking up products and testing them off the shop-shelf is not very common,’ admits Dr. Deepa Bhajekar, a doctorate in Food Microbiology and the Proprietor of MicroChem, which tests branded and unbranded products for chemical and micro-biological contaminants. She explains that it is not always economical or practical for companies to do this.
Consumers can change the situation: The onus then falls on the consumer. It’s the middle-class consumer who suffers the most as it is he who picks up the easily available, inexpensive and yes, even expired foods. As it is not possible to depend on the goodness of the sellers or the iron hand of the law, a greater consumer awareness and rejection of illegally packed food products is the only solution.
Consumers may not be able to avoid traffic fumes, pesticides in fruits and vegetables, preservatives and other chemicals in processed foods but they can certainly say no to food packed in carcinogenic packaging.
Lead: It is found in newsprint, dyes, inks, plastics, glazing of ceramics, petro products. If ingested it is stored in Bones. It can be released into our bloodstream and can cause cause gastro-intenstinal, renal, neurological symptoms and anaemia. It is a long-term carcinogenic and a high dose is fatal.
Dioxin: It is found in plastics and stored in body tissues. It is a known carcinogenic and can cause cancer in the lung, liver and stomach as well as non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma A high dose is fatal.
Cadmium: It is found in glaze, enamel, plastics. It is stored in the liver, the kidneys and can cause kidney damage, anaemia, lung disorders, hypertension, bile diseases. It is a long-term carcinogenic. A high dose can be fatal.
Benzene: It is found in Plastics, rubber, glues, cigarettes. It is stored in body tissues, bone marrow. It can cause blood disorders, including leukemia. A high dose can be fatal.
Pthalates: It is found in plastics and stored in body tissues. It can cause liver and lung damage.
(Published in The Times of India, Mumbai in 2005)
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