With growing concerns about the effects of plastics on human health, it is important for everyday consumers to be aware of the potential for NIAS (non-intentionally added substances) in their food products. Some of these NIAS substances are approved by the Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) as food contact substances, and currently, there is no relationship between NIAS and human health. The government and industry are trying to prevent future concerns by doing new research and developing new standards.
This article will delve into various types of NIAS and their effects on packages while providing examples of how these key elements could pertain to an everyday scenario like a normal box of cereal. Look for subsections called “In our cereal box:” to find out how each piece of this article could be viewed in regards to the example of a box of cereal. In this hypothetical scenario, the cereal box encompasses:
- Internal bag: a bag composed of high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- External box: a box made of paperboard containing recycled material
- Graphics printed on the external box
What are NIAS?
Plastic materials are widely used in food packaging applications; however, there is a concern that possible NIAS in the package could migrate to food. Simply put, the migration of NIAS is the diffusion from a zone of higher concentration (package) to one of lower concentration (food) (Bhunia et al., 2013). NIAS includes side products, breakdown products, contaminants.
- Side Products: Side products are often formed during the production of starting substances and all further manufacturing stages.
- Breakdown Products: Structure-providing components of food contact materials (FCMs) (e.g., polymers, fibers) as well as additives (e.g., antioxidants, UV-stabilizers) are often degraded during manufacture and use, thus leading to various different breakdown products.
- Contaminants: Starting substances used in the production of FCMs often contain impurities or environmental contaminants which may remain in the final food contact article (FCA). Processing and especially recycling can also introduce many different contaminants in FCMs and FCAs (Food packaging and health, 2018).
In our cereal box: Due to all of the steps that go into the production of the packaged cereals, there could potentially be contaminants that reach cereal through chemical migration.
Why are we Concerned With Them?
Some scientists are concerned about the migration of NIAS from the package to food because this would not only affect the quality of the food but could be a risk to consumer health (Ibarra et al., 2018). Some of these NIAS are not food-contact approved, and there is also not enough research that any of these NIAS are completely safe for people. Focused research in this field is difficult because the determination and identification of these substances is complex. Furthermore, studies about NIAS require a lot of time since the exact composition of the packaging materials is unknown. Further studies need to be done to determine if NIAS are completely safe for continued use in food packaging in the levels that they are currently used. Also, there is an urgent need for the information about the exact composition of the packaging materials to be publicly available to consumers, industry, and government (Groh et al., 2018). In order for this to happen, consumers will need to be vocal about their desire for further studies on the potential long-term health effects of the packaging used in their food products.
In our cereal box: In order to ensure food products, like cereal, remain safe and healthy for consumers, there needs to be continual research of NIAS.
Where do They Come From?
When determining where NIAS come from in a cereal box, there are two parts to consider: the internal bag and the external box.
Internal Bag (HDPE Bag)
Polyethylene, Polypropylene, and HDPE are the main primary packaging materials used for the internal bag of most cereals and snack foods. These materials contain many additives that are necessary for improving the quality and the properties of the final package; some of these additives include lubricants, plasticizers, stabilizers, UV absorbers, antioxidants, antistatic agent, colorants, optical brighteners, etc (Ibarra et al., 2018).
If the internal bag of a cereal box is not properly formed (due to incomplete polymerization), then there is potential for compounds from the HDPE (or from additives added to the HDPE) to migrate into the food contained within. As a result of an incomplete polymerization process, low molecular weight compounds such as monomers, oligomers, and other polymer degradation products could remain in the material, and consequently, they could be transferred to food (Ibarra et al., 2018).
Leaching of additives may occur because these compounds are not strongly attached to the polymers. Plasticizers, photoinitiators (benzophenone-BP), and antioxidants are some of those most frequently found in foods and, therefore, to which the consumer is exposed. However, further studies need to be done in order to see an effect in the health of consumers.
- Phthalate is usually used as plasticizers in packaging material industry. It is often released from packaging matrix to the food. Migration of plasticizers to food have been identified (Fromme et al., 2007; Ibarra et al., 2018).
- Photoinitiators can reach food in different ways: direct transfer by diffusion through the material or by indirect gas transfer for volatile substances as in the case of BP (Lago et al., 2015). BP is widely used in UV-curing applications, such as inks and varnishes. BP also can be added to plastic packaging as a UV blocker (Anderson et al., 2003).
- It is used in plastic materials to reduce the oxidative degradation due to UV light (Ibarra et al., 2018).
External Box (Recycled Paperboard Box)
The printing inks used to print the graphics on the exterior of the cereal box may also contribute NIAS to the cereal within, as these printing inks contain chemical components that can migrate through the package. The main types of printing inks used in the printing industry include water-based, solvent-based, UV-curable, and oil-based. Oil-based inks and coatings can pose some concerns for NIAS in paperboard packaging.
Oil-based inks contain varying combinations of mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) in addition to numerous other chemical components. These hydrocarbon components are the main proponents in migration through packages from printing inks. The majority of mineral oil hydrocarbon (MOH) migration occurs in the first half of an item’s shelf life, but migration has also been observed to continue through the entirety of package shelf life (Biedermann et al., 2013). Some types of mineral oils used in printing inks can also have estrogenic effects on the human endocrine system, in which they mimic estrogen and can disrupt normal biological pathways although the extent of estrogenic activity and combinations of MOSHs and MOAHs need further study (Tarnow et al., 2016).
The internal bags most commonly used in cereal boxes are composed of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Although paperboard cereal boxes contain an internal bag as a protective layer for the food within, polyethylene bags act more as a mineral oil sink where the compounds collect in the polyethylene rather than as a migration-slowing barrier (Biedermann et al., 2013).
Typical recycling-related NIAS are mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOHs), bisphenols, phthalates, and photoinitiators in recycled paper and board as well as flavor compounds, oligomers, and additives in recycled plastics (Food packaging and health, 2018).
In our cereal box: The components of the internal bag (HDPE) might have some migration. Also, the components of the external box (recycled paperboard box) might have some migration through the paperboard and even sometimes through the HDPE bag, specifically if those compounds are typical recycling-related NIAS.
How Should we Think About Them?
Most of the NIAS identified in food that have come from packaging materials have been authorized to be used in food contact materials with a specific migration limit. However, a study has found that samples of food exceeded the legal limit for some particular compounds (Ibarra et al., 2018). Therefore, it is important to point out that several compounds are present within the same food item, and consequently, people would be exposed to multiple packaging contaminants from a single item of food. In other words, since some people regularly consume the same food item in their diet (ex. cereals for breakfast), they could be continuously exposed to the same NIAS over extended periods of time. Therefore, special consideration should be made for the potential health effects of NIAS when continually deposited in our bodies over an extended period of time.
In our cereal box: We still have delicious cereal that is safe for us as consumers to eat! The NIAS discussed in this article have been studied and found to be safe enough for human consumption that they are still being used. If these NIAS were found to be a serious health threat to humans, they would not be allowed to be used. However, it is important to be aware of the presence of NIAS in food packaging.
Scientists, industries, and government groups are currently paying more attention to the topic of NIAS due to new research studies on the safety of plastic materials as a food contact article. Consumers are aware of some unsafe compounds like BP that are migrating from plastics to foods, and the government has standards and regulations in place for food manufacturers about the use of plastic material as a food contact article. While they have regulations to limit the leaching of compounds from food contact materials to foods, these standards hold some uncertainty about the limit, and this uncertainty is unsafe to consumers.
With longterm health effects of NIAS unclear, novel research is urgently needed on effect of NIAS to consumer health, and the government needs to focus on developing clear standards for increasing the understanding and awareness of the consumers.
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- Tarnow, P., Hutzler, C., Grabiger, S., Schön, K., Tralau, T., and Luch, A. (2016). Estrogenic Activity of Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons Used in Printing Inks. Plos One, 11(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147239