Healthy eating : Watch out for poisonous packaging

25 May 2014


Photos by Faisal Mujeeb/White Star
Photos by Faisal Mujeeb/White Star

When it comes to eating street food, we often spend a lot of time worrying about what’s in the food, but not enough time worrying about what the food is in. Be they bun kebabs, samosas or any other downtown snack, odds are that the food you buy from street vendors will be wrapped in a newspaper. Now, here’s why this is bad news for you:

Wrapping fried food in newspapers is a very unhealthy practice and its consumption is injurious to health, even if the food has been cooked hygienically. The reason is simple; the hot oil in, say, pakoras, facilitates the seeping of chemicals from ink and paper into the food. The newspaper ink contains many hazardous chemicals which can trigger serious health problems.

Exposure to a class of organic chemicals called arylamines, such as benzidine, 2-Naphthylamine and 4-Aminobiphenyl, is associated with high risks of bladder and lung cancer. Apart from these, printing inks also contain colorants, pigments, binders, additives and photo-initiators (used for speeding up the drying process of the ink), which have harmful effects.

There are literally thousands of ink chemicals and a majority of them can be dangerous for consumers. Newspapers are usually produced by a system called offset-web printing, which requires a certain consistency of the ink (it needs to be very thick) and a particular means of drying. For the former, mineral oils (petroleum-based) and solvents such as methanol, benzene and toluene are used; and for the latter, heavy metal (Cobalt)-based drying agents are used. None of these should be used in food packaging, as they are also classified as harmful and can be perilous for consumers’ health.

Some offset printing ink formulations use vegetable oils rather than mineral oils; however, they have strong odours and should not be used in food packaging. Given the long-term risk from protracted exposure from an early age, the sale of such tainted foods to school children, a common sight in all our cities, must also be avoided and there is an urgent need to raise awareness on this issue.

Photos by Faisal Mujeeb/White Star
Photos by Faisal Mujeeb/White Star

Mineral oil-based printing inks for newspapers contain mineral oil which consists of various types of hydrocarbon molecules that can exist as Mineral Oil Saturated Hydrocarbons (MOSH) and Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons (MOAH). These hydrocarbons usually convert into gases by evaporation that eventually penetrates food items.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation (FAO/WHO) Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, the safe upper limit for the MOSH in foodstuffs is 0.6mg/kg. Older people, teenagers, children and people with compromised vital organs and immune system are at a greater risk of acquiring cancer-related health complications.

Another similar problem which has been noticed in the city is that fast food restaurants are packing burgers and soups in thin, transparent plastic bags, as takeaways. These clear synthetic bags are typically made of polyethylene (polythene) and the principal potential ‘migrant’ agent is ethylene. There are a number of potential additives to polythene, such as anti-static agents, ultra-violet protection and flame retardants. These additives can be very dangerous if they move into the takeaway food.

In a recent commentary in the prestigious British Medical Journal ‘Food packaging and migration of food contact materials: will epidemiologists rise to the neotoxic challenge? J. Epidemiol’ by Muncke J, et al. (Feb 2014) scientists say that most food contact materials (FCMs) are not inert. Chemicals contained in the FCM, such as monomers, additives, processing aids or reaction by-products, can diffuse into foods and this chemical diffusion is accelerated by warm temperature — an aspect which is fully applicable for Karachi.

The scientists further say that FCMs are a significant source of chemical food contamination. As a result, humans consuming packaged or processed foods are chronically exposed to synthetic chemicals at low levels throughout their lives.

Formaldehyde, another known carcinogen, is widely present at low levels in plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate. Other chemicals known to disrupt hormone production and used in food and drink packaging, include Bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan and phthalates.

The hot oil in, say, pakoras, facilitates the seeping of chemicals from ink and paper into the food. The newspaper ink contains many hazardous chemicals which can trigger serious health problems.

While using teabags, some people squeeze the teabag using the label fixed at the other end of the thread. As it can leak the ink from the label, it is recommended that the teabags should be squeezed by using the thread only.

In Pakistan, there are four laws that can be used to have the food sampled for potential hazards, at the applicant’s expense, by making an application to the local health or food inspector. These laws are: The Pure Food Ordinance, 1960; The Cantonment Pure Food Act, 1966; Pakistan Hotels and Restaurant Act, 1976, and; The Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority Act, 1996. The government can also use these laws to control wrapping of fried foods in newspapers and banning the use of plastic bags for takeaways soups and other food items.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 25th, 2014