Hi, we are the Scientific Advisory Board of the Food Packaging Forum, a diverse group of researchers investigating how chemicals in consumer products affect our health, green chemistry, plastic and chemical pollution, microplastics, endocrine disruption, and so much more!

The Food Packaging Forum (FPF) is a science- based NGO investigating how food packaging, especially packaging's chemicals, affects human health. FPF is organizing this AMA to provide the unique opportunity for Redditors to ask questions of a room full of scientists dedicated to this and related subjects. Participating scientists include:

Pete Myers, Leonardo Trasande (u/leotrasande), Olwenn Martin, Maricel Maffini, Ksenia Groh, Jane Muncke (u/BetterDecision8918), Martin Wagner, Lisa Zimmermann, Birgit Geueke, and more!

You may have seen FPF's research on r/Science in May which hit the front page: >1500 chemicals detected migrating into food from food packaging (another ~1500 may also but more evidence needed) | 65% are not on the public record as used in food contact | Plastic had the most chemicals migration | Study reviews nearly 50 years of food packaging and chemical exposure research

Proof! EDIT: Better Proof!

EDIT: We are heading out. Thank you so much for hanging out with us and asking such great questions! We hope to do this again! Bye!

EDIT 2: Hi All- It has been a few hours and I see more questions are coming in. Thank you for your continued interest! It's almost 11pm in Zurich so we are all heading to bed but I (Lindsey, FPF communications person) am copying questions into a document that I will email to the scientific advisory board to try and get a few more answers! Thank you for making this event a success!

EDIT 3 (10:30am Zurich):

Many question are around what to actually do. We understand not everybody has the time/money/access/resources to avoid packaging or buy different kitchen appliances or whatever. FPF has written an article explaining under which circumstances chemical migration happens more. I have copied some of the information here but the original article has more information and sources.

Chemical migration from plastic and other types of food packaging into food is greatest:

  • Over extended time periods
  • At higher temperatures
  • With fatty and/or acidic foods
  • When packaged in smaller serving sizes

So if you have the option, store foods in inert containers (glass/steel/ceramic, or store leftovers in a bowl or pot with a lid on top), wait for foods to cool, put fatty foods in inert containers, and buy in bulk.

Comments: 337 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

Area_Mom47190 karma

What (if anything) have you changed in your life as a result of your research? What changes should others make?

FoodPackagingForum395 karma

Leo: We have eliminated most plastic in our homes. Glass and stainless steel are our mainstays. Plastic should only be for essential uses (flights, for example).

Olwenn: Cook from scratch with fresh ingredients as often as possible, even when packaged in glass or stainless steel, food may have come in contact with plastics or other materials from which chemicals may migrate during production.

Pete Myers: I stopped heating food in plastic (including microwave) almost 30 years ago. Don’t believe the labels that a particular plastic is “microwave safe.”

Son1148 karma

I stopped putting it in the microwave but struggling to not put it in the dishwasher :(

FoodPackagingForum32 karma

Lindsey (FPF comms person): Speaking personally, I use the dishwasher. Yes, there can be contaminants from detergents but the dishwasher saves time and water and I personally feel I have other places I can put that personal energy. We can't all do everything and honestly, consumers shouldn't be expected to shoulder all of these concerns on their own. My un-asked-for advice? Pick your battles and just use the washer.

1714alpha112 karma

On a scale from "cell phone 'radiation'" (nil threat) to "kids playing in asbestos snow" (extremely serious threat), what does the existing evidence indicate is the level of concern we should all have about these kinds of plastics re: human health? Is it really still a complete mystery, or do we yet have some level of certainty about just how bad it is?

Will we sheepishly have to explain to future generations "that's just how it was back then, plastics were everywhere, sorry about your cancer", or is it overblown at all?

FoodPackagingForum132 karma

Leo T: Endocrine disruption is mainstream science. Don’t listen to me but listen to the Endocrine Society, international federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Programme. All have declared chemicals in plastics as a global public health threat.

There is good evidence that plastic pollution has a negative impact on nature. There is some early evidence indicating that nano/microplastics have adverse effects on human health as well, including our reproduction. However, we do not know how much micro- and nanoplastic humans are inhaling or eating, so the health risks remain uncertain at the moment. What we do know, however, is that chemicals used in plastics have demonstrated negative effects on human health, e.g. BPA is linked to several types of cancer as well as reproductive effects.

skilletjlc4105 karma

What are microplastics in my bloodstream doing to me?

FoodPackagingForum158 karma

We are having a discussion between an optimist, a pessimist and a nihilist in the room. The majority of us believes we are not (yet) screwed and we can (still) fix it. Any damage that we can still avoid is a benefit.

Microplastics in your bloodstream will cause inflammation because the body will recognize it as foreign particle.

Leo T: when you see microplastics, you are not seeing a million times chemical molecules that are known to contribute to disease and disability in all of us. We have a lot to work out about microplastics - more we don’t know than we know. But microplastics are a flag that the exposures are as visible as invisible.

FoodPackagingForum62 karma

Pete Myers: Leo T makes an important point. Even low concentrations of ED chemicals can have serious effects, especially if exposure is to a fetus in the womb. The effect can play out over the lifetime of the exposed individual.

hazpat45 karma

So... what are microplastics doing to my body?

FoodPackagingForum95 karma

Ksenia: Microplastics are doing essentially two things: 1) causing local inflammation, and possibly systemic inflammation as well; 2) releasing chemicals, which get a shorter track to enter the body, e.g. through the gut wall. 

thisisnotabluff57 karma

When you look at your parents’s generation — that ate TV dinners, Jello, Tang, Kraft macaroni, canned sauce, New Coke, eggs off of Teflon pans from Barney’s, modern military rations ready to eat— is more plastic leeching into today’s packaged food? And should we be more concerned about those chemicals and quantities if different compared to impacts on older people? Many of these bigger ticket manufacturers have become more conscious of the leeching risk too, thanks to your work.

FoodPackagingForum104 karma

Maricel M: in the last 60 years, the number of new food packaging materials has greatly increased; however many of the chemicals used have been approved by regulators decades ago with little to no data. And their safety hasn’t been reviewed. We have telescopes taking pictures of old and new galaxies but we haven’t yet agreed that BPA is a health concern.

FoodPackagingForum82 karma

Olwenn M: Chemical exposures can have irreversible effects during development, so what our parents ate or were exposed to would potentially have more profound effects on ourselves than on adults.

saw219340 karma

Is microwaving in Tupperware/quart containers dangerous? For some reason when you say plastic I think of seran wrap or cellophane not the hard plastics.

FoodPackagingForum69 karma

Olwenn M: The content and temperature of a container influence what and how much chemicals migrate, and chemicals can migrate from hard as well as soft plastics.

free_from_choice13 karma

When you say "chemicals", that isn't very scientific. Are these long chains, short chains, unnatural organics (uncommon chirality for example). Do singltons of poly chains break off?

What are these "chemicals"?

FoodPackagingForum15 karma

Lindsey (FPF comms person): FPF recently completed a systematic evidence map of all the research we could find on the chemicals and substances measured in migration or extraction experiments from food contact materials. I made a dashboard to share the research.

We found evidence of 280 chemicals from plastics detected migrating into food. The dashboard shows all the chemicals and also links to all 208 research papers with the original data. you can check for yourself!

ChodeZillaChubSquad36 karma

Food items that are meant to be microwaved in plastic, like broccoli "steamer" bags, are they actually safe or not likely?

FoodPackagingForum87 karma

Olwenn M; Just don’t do it

Ksenia G: Those bags are not safe. They leach chemicals in your food. For the plastic material to be heat-resistant, it needs chemical additives. During heating, some of them get released into food. “Sous-vide” bags are also likely to leach toxic chemicals as well.

CaptainObvious32 karma

So just how screwed are we? How do we get to a place where the plastics slowly killing us are no longer part of the food supply chain?

FoodPackagingForum64 karma

Leo: It’s like climate change. Act now and we can live in a cool planet and stay healthy. If we only respond to climate change, we will be contaminated and unable to enjoy the future.

Pete Myers: First we have to identify what uses of plastic are not essential. Eliminate them. Then, for those uses that are currently irreplaceable (for example some medical supplies, we need to invest in research for replacement approaches, either finding another way to solve the problem or inventing new chemicals that are inherently safer guided by safer and sustainable chemistry and which have been tested for safety.

Legal-Cable177321 karma

What single action or change would have the biggest impact regarding the reduction of foodpackaging waste or our exposure to hazardous chemicals from food contact materials?

FoodPackagingForum60 karma

Eat less processed food.

Simple answer: talk to your elected representative, e.g. a member of parliament, etc.. It is politics that can fix the problem, not “individual action” or individual lifestyle choices. But of course, individual lifestyle choices matter for your own exposure. Reduce your use of packaged food and eat more fresh foods.

Maricel M: no individual action will make a big societal change; it will reduce your exposure to chemicals. But we need to overhaul the system that it’s not working for anyone.

FoodPackagingForum44 karma

Jane: I suggest to reduce your consumption of (ultra-) processed foods. It takes more time to cook locally grown, seasonal and organic foods at home, but it tastes much better, is much more fun and definitively reduces your exposure to food contact chemicals. just DON't cook with weird utensils (like beer cans to roast chicken on... or plastic cling film in the oven)

LitFromAbove1 karma

Shopping bag bans?

FoodPackagingForum24 karma

Martin Wagner: Banning single-use products is a great first step towards tackling plastic pollution. However, we know that this will make hardly a dent in reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in nature. So, we cannot stop there but need to work on preventing waste, e.g., by transitioning to a circular economy and reduce the production of new plastics.

Logothetes20 karma

Which do you consider the greatest obstacle in removing harmful elements and finally resolving this issue?

FoodPackagingForum47 karma

Maricel M: regulatory shyness. Sometimes regulators are more concerned about not upsetting or demand actions from the regulated industry than what consumers are concerned about.

Martin Wagner: Besides lobbyism, extractive and linear business models (take natural resources, make short-lived products that soon become waste) that do not take into account human health effects and impacts of nature. New business ethics needed here.

Vested interests by the petrochemical industry. Group consensus here.

FoodPackagingForum31 karma

Pete Myers: Lobbyists from the chemical industry invest heavily in manufacturing doubt about important scientific findings to obscure the health threats of endocrine disrupting chemicals. The evidence is very strong that EDCs contribute to today’s epidemics of chronic diseases and disabilities. Their lobbying prevents policymakers in legislative bodies around the world. While we can take steps to reduce our individual exposures to some of these chemicals, the problem is too pervasive to solve with individual measures. We need policy change to create a safer world.

anysomeday20 karma

I know that your focus is on food packaging, but I'm curious if you have carried any of this into other areas of your life. For example, do you avoid wearing polyester clothing or sleeping on polyester sheets?

FoodPackagingForum18 karma

Lindsey: I’m not on the Scientific Advisory Board but as part of my work with FPF I read reports about the substances and life cycles of all sorts of consumer products. For example, the World Economic Forum report on microplastics in the ocean which found that synthetic fibers are a major source. As such, I’ve been slowly moving away from synthetic materials wherever I can - bought a woolen rug, went to the thrift shop specifically looking for linen clothes, etc. It is more expensive up front but in the long run I hope they last longer and cause fewer problems to me and ultimately wherever it ends up.

Legal-Cable177317 karma

What business models that implement reusing packaging and foodcontact materials make sense economically and also from a ecological/human health perspective?

Are there any already that are worth supporting?

FoodPackagingForum51 karma

Ksenia G: Effective circular business models are usually local and driven by local companies in joint work with local community. In addition, it is important to design out hazardous chemicals. We don’t have economists in the room, but transitioning to circular business models is essential.

Olwenn: We need to talk about over-consumption and how we measure ‘growth’. We need to move from models measuring growth or progress with indicators such as GDP to measuring human wellbeing.

Spelunkie16 karma

How big a threat are microplastics since everyone basically has them in our blood now? Is it "leaded gas literally dumbed down generations" bad? And can more biodegradable packaging (like those cool algae bioplastics) keep up to replace plastics?

FoodPackagingForum37 karma

Pete Myers: Unfortunately, merely because it’s a bioplastic doesn’t mean it’s safe. If you don’t test it, you don’t know. Lisa Zimmermann and Martin Wagner et al. have done excellent research that demonstrates this very clearly. Here’s a link to their research: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/899636

Martin Wagner: First of all, we do not know if everyone has microplastics in there blood. The only scientific study we have so far was done on 22 people of which 17 had microplastics in their blood. Given the amount of plastics we surround ourselves with, it is likely that most of use have plastics in our bodies. The health effect are sill pretty much unknown but there is evidence from toxicological experiments that nano- and microplastics cause oxidative stress and inflammation that links to negative reproductive effects. The major unknown ATM is how many plastic particles we are exposed to.

FoodPackagingForum15 karma

Olwenn M: The volumes of plastics we are currently producing and using are enormous, there is no silver bullet, no one single solution. We need to reduce use, where some plastic uses are essential reuse, recycle, look at the safety of new solutions. There are issues with the sustainability of bioplastics, if not derived from a waste stream (or algae), it will take up land adding pressure on food production, impacting food security and biodiversity.

GlitteringPizza12 karma

Does tinned food have any health effects that arent well known ??

FoodPackagingForum31 karma

Olwenn M: Cans of tinned food or drinking have a protective coating inside, this lining often contains and can  leach BPA, among others.

Ok2021LetsDoThis12 karma

Are all plastics created equal or are there some that are inherently of lower risk to human and environmental heath?

FoodPackagingForum28 karma

Martin Wagner: No, they are not. Indeed, we find that certain types of plastics are more toxic than others. PVC and polyurethane plastics for instance contain very many toxic chemicals. In our work, we have also shown that PVC microplastics induce a stronger inflammatory effect in human cells compared to other plastics. However, for the rest of the plastic materials, it is very unclear at the moment whether these are safe or not. For instance, we looked at different yogurt cups made of the same plastic type: Some of them contained toxic chemicals, others did not. So, we need much more transparency on which chemicals are used in which packaging to make better decisions about which product/packaging to buy.

Take a look at our research here:

Zimmermann, L., Dombrowski, A., Völker, C., Wagner, M. (2020) Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment International, 145, 106066. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106066

Weber, A., Schwiebs, A., Solhaug, H., Stenvik, J., Nilsen, A. M., Wagner, M., Relja, B., Radeke, H. (2022) Nanoplastics affect the inflammatory cytokine release by primary human monocytes and dendritic cells. Environment International, 163, 107173. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2022.107173

FoodPackagingForum15 karma

Jane from FPF: basically all plastics contain unknown (and therefore, untested) chemicals. so by logic, I would argue that one cannot say smth is safe unless one has tested all chemicals it contains -- in appropriate and relevant assays

Legal-Cable177312 karma

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it - metaphorically speaking getting a message to millions or billions - what would it say and why?

FoodPackagingForum38 karma

Maricel M: today’s exposures will affect the health of your children and grandchildren. Chemicals health effects can be transgenerational.

Pete M: You aren’t half the man your grandfather was. Human sperm count has declined by over 50% in the last 5 decades. It’s still going down. If you want your grandchildren to be fertile, do everything you can to advance policies and regulations that reduce exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

FoodPackagingForum33 karma

Martin W: Not all is lost - engage in politics to fix the triple threat of climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Daraich10 karma

This is very interesting and more than a little worrying! Thanks for doing this. Does silicone also leach chemicals into food? Are silicone baking mats safe, or silicone straws?

FoodPackagingForum4 karma

Birgit: Yes, silicones also leach chemicals into food. We know of more than 150 chemicals that were either leaching or that have been measured in the silicone articles (e.g. baking molds). The conditions of use play an important role in this leaching process as higher levels of chemicals migrate at higher temperatures.

InverstNoob6 karma

Do you think there might be a link to depression?

FoodPackagingForum16 karma

Maricel M: unfortunately, effects on brain chemistry are not commonly tested. However, the more we study these chemicals, the more we learn about cognitive, behavioral and other brain health problems.

Pete Myers: Here’s one thing that is certain. Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the womb rewires the fetal brain, and it affects their subsequent neurological health potentially throughout their lives. Multiple studies by many different scientists have found links between fetal exposure and subsequent childhood behavioral problems.

FoodPackagingForum16 karma

Pete Myers: Dulce Sloan of the Daily Show interviewed Shanna Swan, author of Count Down, about the long term decline of human sperm count. In the show Sloan held up a sign that said: “You can either have hard plastics, or hard dicks, But not both.” I might add that it gets even worse with soft plastics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf3fVV0pBGw

gnex305 karma

Which products are the worst offenders for the PFA 'forever chemicals'?

FoodPackagingForum3 karma

Birgit: PFAS are used in almost countless different products, including food packaging. We investigated the use of PFAS in different packaging materials and saw that PFAS have been most frequently found in paper & board food packaging. In these fiber-based materials, PFAS are used to improve the water and grease repellency.

cptstupendous4 karma

Will there ever be a movement to create universal packaging, with focuses on reusability, recyclability, and hopefully biodegradability?

FoodPackagingForum3 karma

Birgit: We hope so ! We are working towards fully sustainable food packaging that includes the chemical safety aspect. It may be difficult to define a “universal” packaging for all different food types, but we believe that there is always a safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly option.

HelixFish4 karma

What about ceramics, aluminum, and other types of non-plastic containers? Do you store produce in glass in your refrigerators, as opposed to directly in drawers, etc. made of plastic? Any concerns about aluminum baking sheets?

FoodPackagingForum2 karma

Lindsey (FPF comms person): Nearly all food in the FPF office and in most of our home fridges is stored in glass or directly in ceramic dishes with a small plate on top. If we order lunch for the office we always order from a local Thai restaurant that delivers in reusable/returnable stainless steel containers.

Ceramics, metals, and glass are all “inert” materials - so chemicals don’t move out of the material (though chemicals can migrate sometimes from plastic coatings inside cans or lead paint on ceramics). I don’t know about aluminum baking sheets but I’ll see if I can corner one of the PhDs to answer you :)

Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about the drawers in the fridge. Dry, cold, non-fatty/acidic food has less chemical migration.

sfier43 karma

are the results you’re getting depressing?

FoodPackagingForum2 karma

Lindsey (FPF comms person): I don’t do the direct research on food packaging or consumer health but as part of my work with FPF I read reports about the substances in and life cycles of all sorts of consumer products. When I first started working here it sometimes felt like the answer was to not eat. Which is not a great reaction. Now I try to think about the fact that because I know all this info I can make choices to keep myself, my friends, and family that little bit healthier.

Monky_53 karma

Do phthalates cause decreases in testosterone in males?

FoodPackagingForum2 karma

Birgit: There is a lot of evidence reporting the effects of phthalates on male reproductivity. I highly recommend Shanna Swan’s book on this topic (“Count Down”) - or a video summarizing the key messages. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo-kSxHNSDQ

GenkiElite2 karma

I am way late to party but I too have a question. Often times I can actually tastes the plastic packaging something was stored it shipped in. Particularly if it's some sort of pie filling, custard, pudding... Something with a lot of surface area. I always mention this to my friends and family but they never notice. Is this a documented phenomenon or is it all in my head?

FoodPackagingForum3 karma

Birgit: It is a well-documented phenomenon that the taste or smell of food or beverages can change if chemicals are released from the packaging. To my knowledge, this is most commonly observed in water because water should not have any specific smell or taste at all. But of course, chemicals also get transferred into other types of foods and beverages. Since there are big individual differences, it may happen that you smell/taste something and others do not. Whether the packaging is the source, is another issue that cannot be answered easily.

gentlemannosh2 karma

Is it true that the entire industry is just a constant battle between groups that ban harmful substances in food vessels and companies that just develop the next material in it’s place which is every bit as bad for us?

Because that is how it’s been presented to me by an engineer in the plastics industry

FoodPackagingForum5 karma

Lindsey (FPF comms person): What you are describing is called “regrettable substitution” - when a chemical/substance found to be hazardous is replaced with a structurally similar or other substance that currently lack safety data but may be just as (or more) hazardous than the original.

Well, the hope is that instead of being “every bit as bad for us” the change makes things marginally better. But replacing a chemical with a closely-related one that acts the same way and is not regulated is the most economical response for developers. Health-wise, replacing bisphenol A (BPA) with BPS or BPF (for example) probably doesn’t change much.

acdn1 karma

If you could recommwnd that we replace plastics in food packaging within the next five years, what would you replace them with?

FoodPackagingForum2 karma

Lisa Z: Instead of replacing one material with another we should first think about how we can reduce food packaging in general e.g., by producing and buying locally. If packaging is essential, we should try to reuse it. From a toxicological perspective, plastic could be replaced by stainless steel and glass. In contrast to plastics, these are inert materials and don’t leach chemicals.