Canadian Packaging

Obesity and diabetes risk from packaging? Maybe Not.

U.S. researchers say two chemicals found in standard food packaging can lead to harmful health concerns.


August 20, 2013
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor

Before everyone panics, and only reads the first two lines of the story, note that while researchers say that chemicals commonly found in some food packaging could lead to health problems in kids, they also state that they have no proof that the chemicals are the cause of health problems in kids.

Confused? Let’s try and decode the double-speak.

There is no cause and effect proof of health problems arising from packaging. Period.

According to an article that appeared on the Toronto Star newspaper website on August 19, 2013, there are two common chemicals used in food packaging that can lead consumers to become obese or show the precursors of diabetes.

Different research teams, examined data from a U.S. nationally-representative health and nutrition survey featuring data from 2003 – 2008, and say that some of the materials in food packaging could pose a higher risk amongst some individuals

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician from New York University, says his research team found the urine levels of a type of a phthalate—Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP) that is used to soften plastic—was linked to data that shows a higher risk of insulin resistance among teenagers.

According to Trasande, DEHP can be found in plastics with the ‘number 3’ for recycling.

Now – here’s the important part: The researchers also said that their findings do not prove insulin resistance is caused by eating foods from packaging containing DEHP.

Yes… there is no proof that packaging is the culprit.

Let’s look at the research: The data includes blood and urine tests from 766 kids aged 12-19-years of age.

The first thing that should jump out at you is the number 766. That’s not a huge sample, by any stretch of the imagination.

Still… within these 766 data samples, Trasande and his team saw that the urine data shows that DEHP seems to be closely-related to an adolescent’s chance of developing an insulin resistance—which is not diabetes, but is a precursor to diabetes.

According to the data, just under 15 per cent of the study participants with the lowest one-third of DEHP levels were found to be insulin resistant, compared to almost 22 per cent of those with the highest levels.

If you read that correctly, it says 15% of those with the lowest levels. And 22% with the highest levels of DEHP.

The article does not state how many kids those numbers actually represent. How many kids are in the highest levels… and what is 22% per cent of that highest level?

Trasande says that the seven percent difference COULD be an indicator that DEHP leads to diabetes precursors. That’s seven percent between the lowest-levels of DEHP and the highest-levels of DEHP found in the sampling of 766 kids.

Let’s not discount the numbers completely. Clearly further research involving a larger sampling is required. Perhaps one that monitors actual DEHP exposure.

But even Trasande says his conclusions may be skewed. He notes that when it comes to the kids involved in the study, there is the possibility that the kids who are more prone to develop diabetes precursors might already have had unhealthy eating habits.

This means that regardless of the DEHP content in the packaging, if a child eats unhealthily he or she is more likely to develop diabetes precursors than a child who eats healthy. Which should not be news to anyone.

But, not to discount his own data, Trasande does state that the DEHP chemical MAY influence how the body secretes insulin in response to sugar.

Fair enough. But no evidence in the article was given to back up that statement.

A completely separate study also prompted another group of researchers to say that Bisphenol A—which is often a by-product created during the manufacture of aluminum can liners—could lead to obesity.

Dr. Joyce Lee from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and her research team used U.S. nutrition survey data through 2010 to compare BPA levels in the urine of six- to 18-year-olds with other health measures.

In their analysis of 3,370 kids, this group of researchers say that BPA—an industrial chemical that may mimic estrogen in the body—was NOT linked to insulin resistance or blood sugar.

However, they did state that kids who had higher levels of BPA were MORE LIKELY to be obese, and tended to have a higher waist circumference-to-height ratio, than those with the lowest levels.

According to Lee, about 18 per cent  (~187) of the kids in the study were considered to be obese per CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta) growth charts.

Compared to children with the lowest BPA levels, the 25 percent with the highest levels of BPA were twice as likely to meet the cutoff for obesity.

Again… how many kids are within the low or high BPA levels? A 25 percentage of what? Four kids? 100?  500?

The survey results show that the average child had 2.6 nanograms, or 2.6 billionths of a gram, of BPA in every milliliter of urine.

While this is indeed a small number, is it a dangerous number? What is an acceptable number?

Lee’s study – much like the one that roared through Canadian media in 2012 – does not prove cause and effect.

What her research does show, however, is that BPA should still be considered a concern in food and beverage packaging, and that more indepth research should be undertaken.

But then: Lee says that there are many chemicals in kid’s products – not just food packaging – that kids are exposed to daily… for which there are unknown health effects.

The key word in Lee’s diatribe is the word ‘unknown’.

The health effects are unknown. There could be dangerous health effects. It could be beneficial health effects. There could be zero health effects.

Fearmongers will say that these chemicals are killing our kids.

But, it’s not.

Data similar to what was presented by these two research teams, led agencies such as the USFDA and Health Canada and others from around the world to ban BPA from baby bottles. Studies did show the possibility of BPA being harmful to babies, so health agencies around the world preferred to err on the side of caution.

But even then, there was not enough evidence to support the banning or imposing of regulations regarding BPA or other phthalates in food products. In fact, in September of 2102, Health Canada declared BPA safe to use in food packaging.

Recently, the CFIA, after routine testing of 234 food products, published survey results from May 2013 showing that all baby formulae and foods tested were BPA-free and safe for human consumption.