Study finds hazardous chemicals in breakfast cereal

Updated on 10 March 2011 | 0 Comments

Swiss scientists have found that cereals packaged in recycled cardboard cartons could actually be seeping deadly chemicals into our foods. Gabrielle Sander investigates.

It was only a matter of time before a new health scare hit the headlines, and this latest one is likely to cause a stir in pretty much every household in the country. 

A BBC report released this week, timed rather well to catch people halfway through their breakfast, revealed that our cereals may not be as safe as they seem. 

Swiss scientists have found that cereals and other foods packaged in environmentally-friendly, recycled cardboard cartons could actually be seeping deadly chemicals into our foods. 

That’s right, those innocent-looking boxes – which you bought thinking you were saving the planet – could actually be harming your own health. 

What did the scientists find out?

The scientists, from the government-run Food Safety Laboratory in Switzerland, have discovered ‘frightening’ levels of toxic chemicals in the recycled cardboard used to package everyday food stables from pasta to porridge.

The ink used to print old newspapers and printed materials recycled for the process has been found to carry mineral oils, which have been linked to the inflammation of internal organs and cancer.

A certain amount of these toxins in your food are safe. However, the study lead by Dr Koni Grob found that out of 119 foods tested, over two-thirds revealed unsafe levels, up to ten times over the agreed limits; with longer life products posing a greater contamination risk. 

What are the cereal-makers going to do?

Jordans, a British cereal brand which avoids the use artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in their foods, has already responded to the study by halting the use of recycled cardboard altogether, choosing the safety of its customers over its environmentally friendly ethos.

Kelloggs and Weetabix, whilst not reacting as drastically as Jordans, have promised to look at ways they can adapt their process to reduce the levels of mineral oils to the accepted guidelines.

Is there an alternative?

Although more than half the cardboard in Europe is made using recycled materials, there is an alternative called ‘virgin-board’.

However, as it is sourced from newly harvested trees, it is more expensive to produce, and in much shorter supply.

Dr Grob argues that even swapping to this material doesn’t prevent risk of contamination, as the larger cardboard containers they are transported in would still have dangerous levels of mineral oils that could seep through. 

Should I be worried?

Despite these recent findings, the Swiss food standard authorities have advised that people who follow a healthy and balanced diet are at minimal risk. And for everyone else, it seems that the effects would only be seen after high consumption of these products over a long period of time. 

The Swiss are, however, calling for manufacturers to look into alternative environmentally-friendly packaging materials for future use. 

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the UK’s food and drinks industry has responded to the study with an official statement to confirm that they are working with the Food Standards Agency, manufacturers, retailers and packaging suppliers to gather their own information on the issue, before imposing any mandatory standards on brands in this country.

Indeed, the FDF’s Director of Food Safety and Science Barbara Gilliani, has emphasised that ‘there is not a need for immediate action.’

In the meantime, the FDF has revised guidance for food manufacturers on the use of these materials in their food packaging, and a full survey will be carried out and published in the summer. 

What I think

The Swiss have a good reputation for clean-living and looking after their people, so I certainly wouldn’t ignore this study.

Saying that, I have to agree with the FDF and FSA stance on the issue, preferring to look into it further before adopting what could turn out to be unnecessarily strict and costly guidelines on food packaging.

It’s great that Jordans, Kelloggs and Weetabix have responded so quickly to the issue, and are promising to do their bit, in the same way companies have taken to cutting down on sugar and salt.

However, it seems a bit extreme to halt all use of recycled materials as Jordans has done; what will their alternative be I wonder. Also, how does this affect the way we recycle newspapers in future? They’ve already been banned from our local chippies!

As with most headline-making health scares stories, I will be taking it all with a pinch of salt.

After all, they seem to suggest that one would need to ingest rather a lot of these types of foods, over many years, before being at risk. I’m interested to see what the FDF report will throw up later in the year, and consumer reactions to it all, especially that of our lovefood readers, so do let me know what you think.

I for one certainly won’t be clearing out my kitchen cupboards anytime soon, choosing instead to continue living the healthy and balanced lifestyle that seems to shield you from most of these sweeping health scares anyway. 

What are you going to do?

Are you going to stop eating cereal packaged in recycled cardboard? Are you worried? Or do you plan to go on as you were before? Let us know using the comments box below! 

Also worth your attention:

Eating red meat is linked to cancer 

The secret killer in your food


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