Recent testing for toxic plasticizers in a wide range of food samples has revealed the pervasive presence of phthalates, often at high levels. At the same time, the study, conducted by Consumer Reports, also found a notable reduction in the levels of bisphenol A (BPA) and other bisphenols compared to 2009 (when Consumer Reports last tested for BPA in foods), although the chemicals are still broadly present in the U.S. food supply.
Phthalates and bisphenols like BPA are used in plastics and can be found in food packaging and other food contact materials, such as surfaces in food processing plants and food handling gloves. Their use has become an issue of concern due to increasing evidence pointing to the chemicals’ negative health consequences, such as disruption of the endocrine system, tumor growth, abnormal reproductive function, neurological harm, immune issues, and other effects.
In April 2023, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared exposure to BPA to be a health concern after lowering the tolerable daily intake (TDI) for the plasticizer by 20,000—a level that most consumers exceed. In 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also amended its food additive regulations, revoking the authorization for food contact use of 23 phthalates and two other substances. In the U.S., BPA is banned for use in baby bottles and infant formula cans.
Not only can plastics and plasticizers enter food through food contact materials and packaging, but also through environmental contamination. For example, in May 2023, the Australian National Science Agency warned that plastics are affecting global food safety after demonstrating how micro- and nanoplastics pollution in the ocean is causing contamination of seafood. In 2022, one study found microplastics in the guts of all fish assessed, and another study found microplastics used in food contact materials in human veins.
For the study, Consumer Reports tested for BPA, bisphenol F, bisphenol S, ten different food-relevant phthalates, and three phthalate replacement compounds in 85 products purchased from supermarkets and fast food restaurants. A total of 239 samples were collected, including baked products and grains, beverages, condiments, fast foods, fruits and vegetables, infant foods, meat and poultry products, milk and other dairy products, seafood products, vegetable oils, and other commodities. The products’ packaging types included aluminum foil, paper wrap, can, foam trays, plastic wrap, glass with lined lids, paper wraps, paper bags, cardboard, plastic bags, and pouches. The foods selected for sampling were chosen based on their likelihood to contain phthalates and bisphenols. Of the 85 total products tested, 67 were supermarket goods and 18 were fast foods, and 2–3 of each product was purchased for testing. The samples were collected between February and April 2023 from retailers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
After testing the samples, Consumer Reports averaged the sum of the levels of total phthalates and total bisphenols in the 2–3 samples of each food. A risk assessment for consumer exposure to phthalates and bisphenols was conducted based on estimates of U.S. adult intakes for the sampled foods, and the intake estimates were compared to EFSA, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) TDIs for the chemicals, where possible.
Consumer Reports found phthalates in nearly every food that was tested, often at high levels, and with no difference based on packaging type or food type. Especially high levels of the plasticizer were found in Del Monte sliced peaches, Chicken of the Sea pink salmon, Fairlife Core Power high-protein chocolate milkshakes, Yoplait Original French vanilla low-fat yogurt, and several fast foods, including Wendy’s crispy chicken nuggets, a Chipotle chicken burrito, and a Burger King Whopper with cheese. Interestingly, organic foods had just as high levels of phthalates as non-organic products, and the highest phthalate levels were found in an organic food—Annie’s Organic cheesy ravioli.
Some foods had lower phthalate levels than others, however. For example, Pizza Hut Original Cheese Pan Pizza had half the phthalate of comparable pizza from Little Caesars. Levels of phthalates even varied among foods from the same brand, such as Chef Boyardee’s Big Bowl Beefaroni pasta in meat sauce, which had less than half the level of phthalates in the company’s Beefaroni pasta in tomato and meat sauce. The only food sample in which phthalates were not detected was Polar raspberry lime seltzer.
Bisphenols were found in 79 percent of tested samples. Although the pervasiveness of bisphenols is still great, the levels of the chemicals were much lower than 15 years ago, when Consumer Reports last tested for BPA.