Food packaging is the best way to safely control and protect the food against physical, chemical, biological and environmental factors, writes Eseri Watsemwa
Practicing good hygiene right from the time food is harvested, cooked, packaged and even stored is vital. Packaging foods on the other hand is a hygiene practice and beneficial for people living different lifestyles due to the ease of availability of packaged foods.
Besides maintaining the quality of food and beverages, packaging maintains their quality and prevents contamination through bacteria that could lead to food poisoning. However, according to experts, one should beware of the kind of packaging material for their food as different materials pose a number of health hazards to humans.
A number of vendors on streets pack food in newspapers, and or paper bags and card board boxes made from recycled paper. This, experts note, is a common but harmful trend that is used in homes as well. For instance, recycled paper boxes may be contaminated with phthalate which may cause digestion problems and cause severe harm to the body.
“Ideally, newspapers and paper bags made from recycled paper go through a number of processes, places and even hands. As a result, some countries are banning use of newspapers and paper bags made from recycled paper as packaging materials,” says Agnes Chandia, principal nursing officer at ministry of health.
For instance, last year, Times of India reported that the Food, Safety and Standard’s Authority (India’s food regulator), restricted use of newspapers as packaging material for food, citing health hazards emanating from consumption of such food, even when it has been hygienically prepared.
According to the food regulator, the ban was raised to protect older children, teenagers, and people with compromised vital organs and immune systems, who are prone to acquiring cancer-related complications.
In Uganda, newspapers are widely used by small hotels, restaurants, vendors and also in homes as absorbent paper for snacks. In the first place, Chandia explains that the practice (using newspapers to wrap food) is poor hygiene as they contaminate food. Microorganisms are present everywhere and these will cause infections and diseases such as diarrhoea. Also, besides the type of paper, ink used in printing newspapers contains chemicals that are harmful to one’s health.
Dr Herman Sewagudde, a health practitioner at Seven Hills medical centre notes that newspapers and recycled paper are always contaminated. They contain harmful colours, pigments additives and preservatives which are hazardous to the body.
“Microorganisms in newspapers and recycled paper pose risks to human health, to vital body organs and weaken the immunity system which in the long run exposes one to the risks of cancer and other complications,” Dr Sewagudde explains, adding that newspaper ink has a number of bio-active materials which are harmful to one’s health.
Similarly, paper bags made from recycled paper, according to Dr Gabriel Ocom, the manager in charge of nutrition at Baylor Uganda, are contaminated with a number of harmful chemicals such as phthalate which may cause digestive problems and also lead to severe toxicity. He says, lately, there are even paper bags made from used newspapers. “This is slow poison for the masses,” he notes.
He explains: “Phthalates are chemicals or acids known as phthalic acid and are mainly used as plasticisers or substances added to plastics and vinyl to increase their flexibility, transparency, and durability. Studies have proven over time that they (Phthalates) damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and the reproductive system.
Metal caps used on the top of glass bottles and jars are also known to release phthalate which is linked to several disturbances in the hormonal (endocrine) system. Printing ink from newspapers seeps into foods and could cause hormonal disturbances.
Oral health link
Plastic packaging, according to Ocom, is equally harmful to one’s health. Plastics contain chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which is linked to several adverse effects on the brain and reproductive health, especially in children as it impacts their oral health and brain development.
Polyolefins, also referred to as commodity thermoplastics, are used for making cartons for juice and milk. James Mulira, a nutritionist, says they contain benzophenone, commonly used as a flavouring agent. “This compound simulates a female reproductive hormone known as estrogen and impacts reproductive health of women”.
Glass is commonly used for storing liquids. However, Mulira says it may contain lead. He notes that lead contains a potent known as neurotoxin which is known to interfere with several functions of the body. Incidentally, exposure to high concentrations of lead over time can cause poisoning, liver and kidney impairment, among other health deathtraps.
However, experts reveal that much as all packaging materials may negatively impact one’s health, materials such as newspapers are avoidable and caution masses to shun their usage as much as they can, as they pose irreversible health hazards in the long run.
These are commonly used for packaging soft drinks, energy drinks and beer. Experts highlight that they contain ortho-phenylphenol, a chemical substance or microorganism used as a preservative. It kills bacteria and fungus and is known to have potential to cause cancer (carcinogenic).
According to the information officer of Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), Maurice Musuga, safe packaging material ought to be Food Grade Material—material which cannot transfer substances that they are made of to the food it is holding.
Printed paper is obviously unsafe because ink contains harmful materials such as lead and carbon. Lead, if accumulated can cause colon cancer. Instead, use virgin paper or pure paper that is freshly made. Recycled paper such as newspapers is unsafe for packaging.
Food grade plastics
All plastic is not hazardous to human health. Musuga recommends use of polyethylene plastic bags and bottles, and polypropylene because of its versatility. Alternatively, use Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for packaging. PET is an excellent water and moisture barrier material used for making plastic bottles, widely used for packaging soft drinks and beer.
Other safe packaging materials include; food grade glass, bottles and even wood, especially for solid foods.
Notably, one can use pretty much any container as long as he or she does not expose it to high temperatures or extreme heat that may cause the materials to seep into the food or liquid it is containing. “Getting into contact is different from mixing with the substance the container is holding. For instance, people have a tendency of inserting milk packs in boiling water to warm the milk. This is deadly as chances of elements migrating from the material are high,” Musuga notes.