Friday, February 10, 2017
If the Burgers Don’t Kill You, the Packaging Will!
A few days ago I turned to CNN Health to find this distressing headline: “Report finds chemicals in one-third of fast food packaging.” First, everyone knows chemicals are bad. Just put the word in a headline and you get attention. Second, everyone knows that fast food is bad. It makes you fat and sick. Put both in a research report and news organizations are bound to jump on it, seeing another opportunity to put everyone in a panic, hopefully guaranteeing that they will comeback for more scary details. Journalism today is about getting pageviews. And there is no better way to do that than with a hard-hitting health scare.
For the record, my Merriam-Webster defines chemical as a substance obtained by a chemical process. Such a process may occur by itself, as for example burning or rusting, or be caused by an outside force.
This article, “Everything is Made of Chemicals,” describes a cup of tea as a “cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts.” So there are many good chemicals, but the use of the word, as in “chemical warfare” or “chemical dependency” has given it an automatic negative connotation.
As for fast food itself, all things in moderation applies. The 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” did a lot to spread the rumor that all fast food is bad. But since then it has been debunked by many and characterized as a joke, a stunt, and full of misinformation. In 2014 an Iowa high school science teacher actually lost weight on a McDiet proposed by his students. Furthermore, the Super-Size-Me experiment has never been reproduced. But the original misperception thrives.
So the headline itself, calculated to portray scary health news, is based on a couple of widely held but basically false beliefs.
Now back to the story. The report featured in the CNN headline came from the Silent Spring Institute, not the most objective source. It said researchers found fluorinated chemicals in one-third of the fast food packaging tested. They took 400 samples of packaging from 27 fast food chains. That seems like a decent sample size, but then they split it into 6 categories. Now we have sample sizes of about 65 to 70 making it far less reliable for drawing generalizable conclusions.
In conclusion they tell us, “The packaging your food comes in could also have a negative impact on your health” because similar chemicals that have “largely been phased out” have been “linked to” several diseases. That’s not exactly how they put it, but when you put all the information together it’s hardly very persuasive.
Fluorinated chemicals are used in fast food packaging for their grease-repellent properties, but are also used safely in many different products from carpeting to auto parts, from hospital gowns to the surface of touchscreens, from body armor and other protective clothing to nonstick cookware.
With such a variety of applications, it almost seems silly even to ask how we can protect ourselves from them in fast food packaging, but they do. "For people who wish to reduce their exposure to these chemicals, they may be able to take some steps ... for instance, by taking the food out of the packaging sooner rather than later.”
Of course standing in most fast food restaurants, it’s easy to observe how little time the food stays in the packaging. When it comes off the grill or out of the fry basket it goes into the packaging and the cashier generally puts it immediately into the bag and hands it to the customer. Even if you drive all the way home to eat, the exposure time (to perhaps dangerous chemicals) is probably less than twenty minutes.
People are likely get more exposure from their carpets, touchscreens and nonstick cookware. But that’s not the point when a journalist can compose scary headlines or a research group can use it as a reason to entice more donors. Critical thinking, People!