Consumers are increasingly concerned about the chemicals in their food. 

One major way that toxic chemicals can enter our food is by migration from food packaging. For example, FDA studies have shown increased levels of perchlorate, an additive in plastic dry food packaging, appearing in our food, including baby food. Exposure to perchlorate threatens children’s brain development.

When meeting consumer demand for safer food, it’s important for your strategy to include the minimization of chemical contaminants. In our corporate and regulatory work, EDF has identified chemicals in food packaging and food handling equipment where the potential health impacts from their migration into food raises serious concerns. These chemicals in virgin materials may also contaminate the recycling stream and undermine their recyclability.

By ensuring future food packaging is free of these chemicals, companies can improve consumer trust while minimizing the impact of future regulations on their bottom line.

Chemicals recommended for action:

Intentionally added ingredients

  1. Ortho-phthalates (primarily used in plastic but many other uses including printing inks): Studies show that these chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity. Their contamination of food is widespread. Their safety is currently under review by FDA.
  2. Perchlorate (anti-static agent used in plastic for dry food and in food handling equipment): This chemical disrupts the thyroid gland’s normal function and reduces production of the thyroid hormone needed for healthy fetal and child brain development. Food contamination is widespread; especially problematic is the increase of perchlorate levels in baby food dry cereal. The safety of perchlorate is currently under review by FDA. There are a number of ways that you can minimize perchlorate contamination. Learn more about how Perchlorate can be reduced.
  3. Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (grease-proofing agent used in paper packaging): PFAS, often distinguished as long-chain or short-chain, are bioaccumulating, persistent chemicals associated with an array of health problems including endocrine disruption and children’s developmental harm. There is widespread human exposure to PFAS; water and food are the likely sources. PFAS in food packaging will be banned in Washington State two years after the state finds suitably available safer alternatives or in 2022, whichever date gives manufacturers more time to redesign packaging.
  4. Benzophenone (used as a plasticizer in rubber articles intended for repeat use)Citing the carcinogenic evidence regarding benzophenone, FDA has banned its use as a flavor and in food packaging. The bans go into effect in 2020.

Residual processing aids

  1. Ethyl and methyl glycol, toluene, and n-methyl-pyrrolidone (NMP): These solvents, often used in printing inks, leave residues in packaging and pose a risk of reproductive or development harm. Toluene and NMP have been targeted for removal in other product categories as well. Toluene has been targeted by a number of retailers, including Amazon and Rite-Aid, for removal from personal care and beauty products. NMP has been targeted for removal from paint strippers by several retailers including Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart. EPA has proposed banning use of NMP as a paint stripper and is expected to finalize that proposal for retail sales soon.
  1. Bisphenol A, B, F, S (used to make epoxy lining in metal cans, to make polycarbonate plastic, and ink): One or more bisphenol compounds has been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and/or reproductive toxicity. BPA is already banned for baby bottle use or coating of infant formula packaging. BPS became a common replacement to BPA in packaging, but recent studies demonstrate similar health concerns to BPA.


  1. Heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium VI, and mercury):These chemicals are highly toxic and have been regulated in a variety of applications. EDF has demonstrated heavy metal contamination in food, particularly baby food. Though not intentionally added, contamination of food packaging may be a source. FDA’s Toxic Elements Working Group is evaluating children’s exposure to heavy metals across all foods.

Key Chemicals in Food Packaging

See our list describing in more detail the most concerning toxic chemicals in food packaging, and why they should be addressed first.

For additional information on managing chemicals of concern in food packaging, the “Food Packaging Product Stewardship Considerations” published by the Institute of Packaging Professionals in March 2018, provides recommendations for eliminating or minimizing a long list of chemicals of concern in packaging.

We want higher recycling rates of food packaging, and we want safer food. Taking action today helps to protect consumer health now and in the future. Lastly, informing consumers of the actions your company is taking to drive down the levels of chemicals of concern in food is an important part of any safer food strategy.