Food packaging, health and sustainable development: the story of a paradox


Whether in the form of a box, a bag or plastic wrap, food packaging is often lambasted, as it is seen as a source of pollution or contamination. So why use it? For its primary functions, which are essential to the products they envelop: protection, transportation, conservation, storage and information. To a certain extent, food packaging also lets you waste less food. It also plays a major positive role in consumer health and safety. Basically, packaging protects what it is selling and sells what it is protecting!

Health and sustainable development: that’s this month’s theme on our blog. Before coming back to packaging, let’s review the very definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition from Quebec’s Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs can be paraphrased as follows: heal the present to ensure we have a healthy future. Isn’t health the very basis around which any development, future project or action revolves? The link between health and sustainable development is obvious, but it’s a lot more complicated than it looks…

Mineral oil migration 101

Swiss researchers from the Food Safety Laboratory in Zurich discovered something about the recycled paper used to make cardboard: it may contain mineral oil that can migrate from packaging to food. In light of this conclusion, these unforeseen “ingredients” have raised some questions, especially with regard to consumer health.

At the heart of the controversy lies a nice little environmental paradox: paper recycling—especially the ink from newspapers, as the ink is rich in mineral oil—may be a problem. As such, there is some controversy surrounding the environmentally responsible practice of making packaging out of recycled fibres.

On the bright side, the real risks for human health are highly uncertain as of yet. To date, no studies have proven mineral oil is toxic to humans. The paradox still deserves some attention.

Should we follow the debate?

While the issue is being hotly debated in Europe, it is essentially being ignored here in North America. Admittedly, the situation is not the same. Studies have shown that North American cardboard contains less mineral oil than cardboard produced in Europe.

For the time being, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have not taken a position on the matter, though it would be a good time to fill the current regulatory void and define a mineral oil regulation. More studies should also be carried out on analysis methods, oil migration and its impact on human health.

Mineral oil probably does migrate into food. Unfortunately, the risk this migration poses to human health cannot be excluded. Consider this nuance: we ingest many potentially toxic compounds on a daily basis, and it has yet to be proven that packaging should be singled out over other sources of contamination.

There are solutions out there—some radical, some very expensive. This would inevitably result in higher food prices in store. In a later post, we will introduce you to some of these potential solutions. For now, the debate mix could use a dose of rationality. You have to put things into perspective. Eating a varied and balanced diet would render the risk to consumers negligible.

What’s your take? Don’t hesitate to share your point of view.

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About the Author
Islem Yezza

Islem Yezza is a Technical Business Development Director at Cascades. He has worked both in academic and private sectors, notably he occupied the position of R&D manager of an international flexible packaging Group. He earned his PhD in bioprocess engineering from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS). After graduating, NSERC awarded him a post-doctoral fellowship at the Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI-NRC). One major achievement of his research: the development of an innovative process for the production of biopolymer using maple sap as feedstock, for which he obtained a patent. Islem published regularly peer-reviewed papers and made contributions to national and international conferences. He has given several interviews in different media as a specialist in sustainable and smart packaging.

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  1. Alvaro at 10:55 am

    Dear Islem,
    BASF and INNOVIA FILMS have comercialised two products that can act like mineral oil barrier in recycled packaging. Do you know the existence of similar products of other companies?

    Thanks you and congratulations for your post

    Álvaro Estrada

    • Islem Yezza
      Islem Yezza at 8:48 pm

      Hi Alvaro. Many water-based and extrusion coating suppliers are offering barriers to mineral oil migration. However, the major issue is the extra cost. Who will pay for the barrier? Moreover, FDA and CFIA have not taken a position on the matter.

      Also, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) just published a scientific opinion on human exposure through the diet to a diverse group of mixtures known as ‘mineral oil hydrocarbons’ (MOH).

      The opinion identifies some potential concerns in relation to exposure to MOH through food. However, EFSA’s experts stress there are several uncertainties regarding the chemical composition of MOH mixtures to which humans are exposed and also the wide range of sources of human exposure. Furthermore, on the basis of new information on the lack of toxicological relevance for humans of previous animal studies, the temporary Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) of some ‘saturated’ MOH present in specific food products warrant revision.

      To read more:

      Thanks for your question. Islem.

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