Plasticiser danger in food

CHOICE tested foods in glass jars and found contaminants from the plastic used to seal the lids.
 
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  • Updated:12 Jun 2008
 

01 .What's lurking under the lid?

Glass jars with plastic lids

Next time you open a jar of pasta sauce, have a look at the inside of the lid. Around the edge there’s a ring of rubbery material — a gasket, that fits against the glass and forms the seal. It’s made from PVC but also contains chemicals called plasticisers, which give it the right mechanical properties to form a good seal. This seal ensures the food inside is protected from harmful bacteria.

In our test of 25 foods in glass jars, 13 contained the plastic-softening chemicals epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO) or phthalates at levels that exceed the limits set by the European Union. Australian food regulations don’t set limits for these chemicals and while there’s no immediate risk to your health, there’s no guarantee that these chemicals are OK in the long-term.

CHOICE wants better protection for consumers.

CHOICE verdict

We haven’t listed the products we tested because they are just examples of the many affected products likely to be on the market and they pose no immediate health danger to individuals.

What we are concerned with is the long-term health implications of plasticisers migrating into foods. CHOICE wants to see the industry and the regulator address the risk of plasticisers in food.

The food industry needs to find alternatives to ESBO and phthalates that are known to be safe, while FSANZ should ensure the Food Standards Code sets limits for plasticisers in food.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


 
 

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02.The problem with plasticisers

 

On its own, PVC is hard and rigid — it’s often used for drains and for guttering and downpipes. Plasticisers are added to soften it and make it flexible enough to form an airtight seal against the glass rim of the jar.

Plasticisers can make up as much as 40% of the plastic material. They’re relatively small molecules that can easily migrate from the plastic into the food, and because plasticisers dissolve readily in fats and oils, fatty foods are especially vulnerable to contamination.

Most common types

The plasticisers most frequently used to make the seals for screw-capped jars are epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO) and a number of different phthalates.

ESBO

This is one of the most frequently used additives to PVC, especially for containers or packaging for food. It functions as a stabiliser as well as a plasticiser. Lid seals are formed at high temperatures, which causes the PVC in the seal to partially break down and release hydrogen chloride.

ESBO reacts with the hydrogen chloride and thereby prevents further breakdown of the plastic, but in doing so it forms compounds called chlorohydrins. Chlorohydrins make up, at most, 5% of the ESBO but they can be toxic. There’s no evidence that ESBO itself is harmful, but an expert committee appointed by the European Union (EU) to review the evidence about ESBO concluded that:

“In the absence of adequate analytical and toxicological data on ESBO derivatives, no advice can yet be given on the significance for health of such derivatives in foods.”

The EU has set guidelines specifying a limit of 60 ppm (parts per million) of ESBO in food generally and 30 ppm for baby foods. Infants are at greater at risk because of their smaller body size — and they’re often given food from screw-capped jars. In other words, we can’t be sure whether our health is at risk from the use of ESBO, but let’s opt to be on the safe side.

Phthalates

Phthalates have become a health hot spot. The most commonly used of this class of compounds, DEHP (see How we tested for the full chemical names), can interact with people’s hormone systems and affect reproductive development.

Phthalates aren’t permitted at all in food packaging materials in the US, and the EU recently banned the use of DEHP in all toys and articles used for childcare. They've also banned two other phthalates — DNOP and DINP, often used as plasticisers in toys and childcare articles that children might put in their mouths, such as teething rings and dummies. The EU has also specifically set very low limits for phthalates in food — 1.5 ppm (parts per million) for DEHP and 9 ppm for DIOP and DINP.

How to avoid plasticisers

Research has shown that plasticisers are more likely to migrate into food that contains more than about 4% free oil or fat. And migration could be high, even with less fat, if the product is strongly heated after the container’s been filled — as is typical for infant foods. Foods without much fat (such as honey) or foods that set hard and don’t touch the lid (such as mustard or firm mayonnaise) are unlikely to pick up significant contamination.

So if you want to minimise your risk of exposure to plasticisers, check the nutrition-information panel on the label and avoid any product with more than about 4g of fat per 100g of food — especially if it’s runny enough to slop against the inside of the lid.

03.What CHOICE tests found

 

We tested 25 food products in glass jars (see How we tested) and found significant levels of ESBO and the three phthalates DEHP, DIOP and DINP.

  • Nine of the 25 foods contained ESBO at levels well above the EU limit of 60 ppm — one of them, a pesto sauce with 26% fat, contained 840 ppm.
  • Twelve of the foods contained phthalates at levels above their respective EU limits. One, a tandoori dip imported from India, contained 350 ppm of DEHP — that’s about 230 times the EU limit.
  • Five products contained excessive levels of all four plasticisers. Interestingly, three of them were imported from Italy, a member country of the EU.
  • Three of the foods tested were labelled ‘organic’. While one of them (imported from New Zealand) contained only a trace of ESBO, the other two (from Italy and Turkey) contained excessive levels of all four plasticisers. Biological Farmers of Australia told us PVC isn’t permitted in packaging for organic foods produced in Australia.

How we tested

We bought samples of foods in screw-capped jars from Sydney supermarkets and organic food specialists. We looked for products that are:

  • Runny enough for some of the food to slop against the inside of the lid during transport and distribution.
  • Fatty enough to dissolve plasticiser from the gasket. Most have a total fat content of more than 4%, according to the nutrition information panel.

Our lab blended the entire contents of each jar and measured the levels of the following plasticisers:

  • Epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO).
  • Di-iso-octyl phthalate (DIOP).
  • Di-isononyl phthalate (DINP).
  • Di-ethyl-hexyl phthalate (DEHP).

04.What do the regulators say?

 

The Food Standards Code has specific provisions for a few chemicals migrating from packaging materials, but there are no limits set for phthalates or ESBO.

The national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), told CHOICE it takes a case-by-case approach where levels of chemicals are reported that could have health and safety concerns. It would undertake a risk assessment based on the average consumer’s overall exposure to the chemicals.

At state level, legislation prohibits the sale of food that’s adulterated. In practice, this means that plastic materials in direct contact with foods have to comply with the relevant US and/or EU regulations. However, the US regulations are complex and also operate on a case-by-case basis. So we’d expect the Australian states to follow the European Union’s limit of 60 ppm for ESBO migrating into the food (30 ppm for infants food), and the much lower limits for phthalates.

And the big food companies?

We asked the big food manufacturers whose products we tested for their comments.

  • Heinz told us it would undertake a precautionary withdrawal of two products pending further investigations.
  • Always Fresh (Riviana Foods) is investigating the issue with its suppliers.
  • Leggo’s (Simplot) said it's requesting follow up from its suppliers and awaiting specific direction from FSANZ.
  • Kraft told us it had confirmed with its supplier that no phthalate plasticisers are used in its lid seals. Its tests on five of its products with these lids found no phthalates.