Dangerous PFAS Chemicals Are in Your Food Packaging

CR found 'forever chemicals' in bowls, bags, plates, and wrappers, even from some companies that say they've phased them out

various fast food packaging and fast food falling through the air Photo: Ben Goldstein

In 1938, a 27-year-old chemist named Roy Plunkett stumbled across a new type of chemical, one with a bond so strong it would end up sticking around long after he died—in fact, almost forever.

Today, this practically unbreakable compound, created when the elements carbon and fluorine are fused, can be found in the air and the water, as well as in our bodies, our food, and our homes. That’s because in the decades since Plunkett’s discovery, thousands of substances that rely on this type of carbon-fluorine bond have been created and added to a wide variety of products to make them resistant to heat, water, oil, and corrosion.

These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” can be found not only in nonstick pans and waterproof gear but also in the grease-resistant packaging that holds your food from takeout chains and supermarkets. Packaging made with PFAS often resembles paper or cardboard—a seemingly virtuous alternative to plastic—but salad dressing and fry oil do not leak through. 

In recent decades, PFAS exposure has been linked to a growing list of problems, including immune system suppression, lower birth weight, and increased risk for some cancers. This raises alarms about the use of these compounds, especially in items such as burger wrappers and salad bowls.

“We know that these substances migrate into food you eat,” says Justin Boucher, an environmental engineer at the Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit research organization based in Switzerland. “It’s clear, direct exposure.” That’s especially likely when food is fatty, salty, or acidic, according to a 2021 review in the journal Foods. Some research even suggests that PFAS levels are higher in people who regularly eat out.

Another concern: When packaging is tossed into the trash it can end up in landfills, and PFAS can contaminate water and soil, or it is incinerated, and PFAS can spread through the air.

Health and environmental advocates are pushing for PFAS use to be restricted, especially in items such as food packaging. In response, some fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, as well as several grocery stores, say that they have taken steps to limit PFAS in their food packaging or that they plan to phase it out. 

To see how often PFAS are still found in food containers, Consumer Reports tested more than 100 food packaging products from restaurant and grocery chains. We found these chemicals in many types of packaging, from paper bags for french fries and wrappers for hamburgers to molded fiber salad bowls and single-use paper plates. PFAS were in some packaging from every retailer we looked at.

That included many fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s, which says it plans to phase them out by 2025, as well as Burger King and Chick-fil-A, both of which publicly committed to reducing PFAS in their packaging after being told of CR’s test results. Chains that promote healthier fare, such as Cava and Trader Joe’s, also had some packaging that contained PFAS, CR’s tests found. We even found the chemicals in packaging from places that claimed to already be moving away from PFAS, though those levels were often lower than at other retailers.

“We know from our testing that it is feasible for retailers to use packaging with very low PFAS levels,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR. “So the good news is there are steps that companies can take now to reduce their use of these dangerous chemicals.”

Searching for PFAS

Identifying the exact type of PFAS in a product is complex: There are more than 9,000 known PFAS, yet common testing methods can identify only a couple dozen.

So CR tested products for their total organic fluorine content, which is considered the simplest way to assess a material’s total PFAS content. That’s because all PFAS contain organic fluorine, and there are few other sources of the compound, says Graham Peaslee, PhD, a professor of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who has studied PFAS in food packaging. 

Another complication: PFAS is used so widely—found in ink on food containers, recycled paper, machines that make packaging, and more—that it often shows up in products unintentionally

Scientists and regulators are still debating what level of organic fluorine indicates intentional use. California has banned intentionally added PFAS; starting in January 2023, paper food packaging must have less than 100 parts per million organic fluorine. Denmark has settled on 20 ppm as that threshold. CR’s experts support the 20-ppm limit. 

“If they can get to 100 ppm, they should be able to get to 20 ppm,” Peaslee says. “Lower is always the ultimate goal.”

CR tested multiple samples of 118 products and calculated average organic fluorine levels for each. Overall, CR detected that element in more than half the food packaging tested. Almost a third—37 products—had organic fluorine levels above 20 ppm, and 22 were above 100 ppm. 

Among the 24 retailers we looked at, nearly half had at least one product above that level, and most had one or more above 20 ppm. But almost all also had products below that amount. For example, while the two products with the highest average levels came from Nathan’s, the chain also had four products below 20 ppm. Nathan’s told CR that it was redoing its packaging and had eliminated the high-level items, as did Chick-fil-A, which had the item with the next highest level in CR’s tests.

CR’s test results are not representative of all the packaging from a retailer, and the packaging may have changed since CR conducted these tests.

Putting PFAS Claims to the Test

We looked at retailers that claimed to be phasing out PFAS, including Cava, Chipotle, Panera Bread, Sweetgreen, and Whole Foods Market. All 13 of the products the companies said had reduced PFAS still had some detectable organic fluorine, and seven were above 20 ppm. They ranged from a Whole Foods soup container with 21 ppm organic fluorine—the only Whole Foods item to top the 20-ppm limit—to a paper bag for pita chips from Cava with 260 ppm. 

See Full Results Below

In response to questions from CR, companies stressed that with PFAS so common in the environment, it’s almost impossible to eliminate them entirely. Sweetgreen, for example, said, “We may have trace amounts of fluorine in our bowls. Unfortunately, PFAS are a widespread problem and are present in everyday life from tap water to air to soil.” Whole Foods said the company “does not make PFAS-free claims but has strived to prevent intentionally added PFAS in packaging.” Panera and Chipotle also said their goal was to avoid packaging with intentionally added PFAS.

Cava said that supply chain problems had slowed its “transition to eliminating added PFAS.” The company said that it hoped to complete that process by the end of 2022 and that it had updated its public statements to reflect the new timeline. 

Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at CR, acknowledges that trace amounts of PFAS in food packaging may be inevitable. And that’s why he says that “no company should tell consumers that their products are 100 percent free of PFAS.” But he also says CR’s tests show that getting to very low levels is possible and should be a goal for everyone.

Dangerous Substitutes

CR tested a subset of about 50 products—including those with the highest organic fluorine levels—to see which specific PFAS they contained. That test, regularly used by industry, regulators, and researchers, is limited: It can detect only 30 of the thousands of known PFAS. Still, that test provided several key insights. 

First, one of the PFAS we found at the highest concentrations is a compound called PFBA, which may accumulate in the lungs and has been linked to more severe cases of COVID-19

In addition, the testing detected two PFAS compounds that, because of their known risks, are no longer manufactured in the U.S. One of them, PFOA, was the most frequently detected compound, and the other, PFOS, was the fifth most common. “Manufacturers could unknowingly still be using the compounds, or they could be using materials produced overseas,” Hansen says. Another possibility: The compounds are now so widespread in the environment that they keep showing up even after production of them in this country stopped. 

Finally, the test for specific PFAS found that those 30 compounds accounted for only a tiny fraction—less than 1 percent—of the organic fluorine found in the products. That shows that the vast majority of PFAS are not identified with commonly used tests, Peaslee says. And it underscores an ongoing argument about whether the compounds should be regulated as a group or on a case-by-case basis.

The Food and Drug Administration favors regulating them individually, it told CR, because concerns about one specific PFAS might not be “indicative of concerns for all chemicals classified as PFAS.” 

But CR’s Hansen says that when regulators try to restrict specific compounds, such as PFOA, manufacturers may simply switch to others—and can decide on their own to call new compounds safe, without independent verification. 

How to Avoid PFAS

Admittedly, steering clear of PFAS in food packaging isn’t easy. After all, though CR’s tests identify some products in restaurants and grocery stores that have higher amounts, it’s not practical, for example, to say, “I’d like my Big Mac in a PFAS-free wrapper, please.” 

Still, CR’s findings provide another reason to limit how often you eat takeout food. And there are other steps you can take to limit your exposure to PFAS, as well as some measures that regulators and industry can take.

Favor retailers that have pledged to reduce PFAS. While their levels are not zero, PFAS levels in food packaging at those retailers tend to be somewhat lower. And giving them your business supports efforts to address the problem. 

Don’t assume products with environmentally friendly claims are PFAS-free. We detected at least some organic fluorine in every product with those kinds of claims. Several even had levels above 100 ppm. That included a McDonald’s Big Mac container labeled as using paper from “responsible sources,” a focaccia bag from Sweetgreen labeled “EcoCraft,” and paper plates from Stop & Shop labeled as “100% compostable.” (After being contacted by CR, Stop & Shop said it was removing the plates from shelves.) To be certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute, products are supposed to have less than 100 ppm organic fluorine. Hansen says any PFAS in compostable products is concerning because of how long the compounds last in the environment. 

Transfer takeout food out of its packaging when you can. The longer food sits in packaging, the more likely it is that PFAS will migrate to your food. That may be especially important if your food is warm and if it comes in paper bags or molded fiber bowls, which had the highest levels in CR’s tests. Ideally, put food into foil, silicone, or glass containers, which typically don’t have PFAS. 

Don’t reheat food in its original packaging. That could make it easier for PFAS to get into food. 

Test your water for PFAS. If the level is high, consider using a water filter. Learn how to test and treat your drinking water.

Limit exposure from other sources. The biggest risk from PFAS is from cumulative exposure over time. So try to limit the use of other products known to contain PFAS, including water-repellent clothing and stain-resistant carpeting.

CR offers these tips on how to avoid PFAS.

Protecting the Next Generation

Even if you take all those steps, you will still be exposed to PFAS, precisely because it is so ubiquitous. “That’s why CR and other advocates support banning PFAS in food packaging, and restricting its use in other products, too,” says Ronholm, CR’s food policy expert. 

Other experts say that, especially with food packaging, PFAS chemicals are clearly not essential. “We are paying enormous amounts of money to clean up contamination from PFAS,” but it would be better to ban them from food packaging and other unnecessary uses to begin with, says Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a consumer advocacy group.

Ronholm and others also say the federal government should regulate PFAS as a group. “Trying to ban individual PFAS is an impossible game of whack-a-mole,” he says. “As soon as one is addressed, industry comes up with another.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency now has guidance levels on just two PFAS—PFOS and PFOA—and just in drinking water. And even those are too high, says Philippe Grandjean, PhD, a professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and an expert on PFAS health risks. 

In addition, research from the EPA and elsewhere confirms that many newer PFAS chemicals, like their older cousins, are likely to remain in the environment almost indefinitely and to pose health risks, especially to infants. 

“The next generation is being exposed to these toxic compounds at the most vulnerable time period in their development,” Grandjean says. 

Says Ronholm: “It’s long past time we got PFAS out of products, our water, and our food.” 

CR’s Food Packaging Test Results
These results show levels of total organic fluorine, a measure of PFAS, in 118 food packaging products gathered from major fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, as well as supermarkets. PFAS in food packaging have been linked to potential harms to human health and the environment. Products with two red squares have 100 parts per million organic fluorine or more. Starting next year, California will ban food packaging that exceeds that level. Products with one red square have 20 ppm organic fluorine or more, a stricter standard for food packaging set by Denmark. CR supports that lower cutoff.

20 ppm or more

100 ppm or more
ND
Not Detected
Note: Products were selected based on availability at the time of the visit (August to November 2021) at stores in Connecticut, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Levels shown are averages of multiple samples of each product. All packaging is paper-based unless otherwise noted. Results are not representative of all the packaging from a retailer, and packaging may have changed since CR conducted these tests. “ND” means “not detected” (the test, which can generally detect 10 ppm or more, did not find any organic fluorine).

Editor’s Note: Testing for this project was supported by the Forsythia Foundation, which promotes healthier people and environments by reducing harmful chemicals in our lives.

This article also appeared in the May 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

This article has been updated to include information that Burger King publicly committed to reducing PFAS in its food packaging after being told of CR’s results.