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Home-cooked meals linked to fewer harmful chemicals: Study

Cooking more meals at home may keep harmful chemicals at bay, according to new research from the Silent Spring Institute
SHUTTERSTOCK/Daniyar Aibekov

Cooking meals at home rather than buying takeout may reduce exposure to the harmful category of chemicals known as PFAS, according to new research from the Silent Spring Institute and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, have been linked with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth rate and decreased fertility.

PFAS are commonly used in nonstick, stain resistant, grease- and water-proof products—including carpeting, outdoor clothing, as well as cookware and food packaging. In other words, PFAS are used in a lot of take-out and fast-food containers. PFAS are common in sandwich and burger wrappers, for example, and in 20% of paperboard--the containers often used for french fries.

The researchers from Silent Spring based their findings on a study of more than 10,000 individuals who provided details about their diet along with blood samples that were analyzed for PFAS chemicals.

People who cooked meals at home (with 90% of those meals consisting of food purchased at a grocery story) had significantly lower levels of PFSA in their bodies. People who ate more fast food had higher levels of PFAS.

“Our results suggest migration of PFAS chemicals from food packaging into food can be an important source of exposure to these chemicals,” said co-author Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring.

“The general conclusion here is the less contact your food has with food packaging, the lower your exposures to PFAS and other harmful chemicals,” added co-author Kathryn Rodgers, a staff scientist at Silent Spring. “These latest findings will hopefully help consumers avoid these exposures and spur manufacturers to develop safer food packaging materials.”

The study did not analyze food packaging directly, but the elevated levels are consistent with earlier research from Silent Spring. Food crops and livestock can also contain PFAS through contaminated soil and water.

Concerns about the effects of PFAS led Denmark to ban them from food packaging starting next year and Washington State and San Francisco have both passed legislation to limit their use in food containers.

While home-cooked food, bought from a grocery store, correlates with reduced PFAS, according to Silent Spring, PFAS are an issue for the take-out containers used by grocers as well. Late last year, an American advocacy group found that nearly two-thirds of the containers at Whole Foods salad and hot food bars were likely treated by PFAS.

And a study last fall of the chemical policies of 40 of North America’s largest food retailers by the U.S.-based Mind the Store campaign, in partnership with Environmental Defence, was harshly critical of food retailers for not moving quickly enough to remove PFAS and other harmful chemicals from their products.

Nearly half of the retailers evaluated received an F grade for not developing policies to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in their products or packaging.

Loblaw however was singled out for its efforts to remove “toxic phthalates and antibacterial triclosan from private-label personal care and cleaning products.”

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