8 Fast Food Chains With The Most Toxic Food Packaging – Eat This Not That

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When you’re eating a tasty burger or tucking into crispy fries from your favorite fast food restaurant, chances are the last thought on your mind is whether or not you’re ingesting toxic chemicals at every delicious bite. But maybe you should think about it, especially in light of a recent Consumer Reports (CR) survey.

In a detailed report, CR revealed that its experts tested multiple food packaging samples of 118 products sold by 24 different restaurant and grocery store chains between August and November 2021. Why? They were looking for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS. PFAS are considered “eternal chemicals” because they linger long after they are created and contaminate our soil, water, and even our air. The problem is that research has shown that certain PFAS, which can build up in our bodies over time, can be harmful to human and animal health.

And don’t miss 12 fast food chains that use substandard beef.

“Studies have shown that exposure to PFAS in mothers is associated with lower birth weight in their babies and a shorter breastfeeding period. PFAS are also associated with decreased thyroid and kidney function says Susan Pinney, Ph.D. of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Public Health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “There is scientific evidence to suggest that PFAS are associated with certain cancers such as kidney, testis, breast and prostate.”

According to CR’s survey, eight national fast food and fast food restaurants made the “cheeky list” for having at least one item of food packaging (i.e., sandwich wrap, bag paper for sides or a children’s meal fiber tray) that have tested positive for high levels of PFAS (over 100 parts per million). The eight makers of “Bad-Wrap” lists include names like Arby’s and Burger King, and there are specific wrap items that have been found to be the most toxic in each restaurant.

How did we come here?

The first PFAS chemical, later known as Teflon, was accidentally discovered by a chemist named Roy Plunkett in 1938 at a DuPont Company plant. Teflon and other PFAS – there are now over 9,000 known PFAS – make our lives a little more convenient because they have properties that resist corrosion, resist high heat (i.e. non-stick pans) and repel water (i.e. water-proof clothing). They can also be used to make paper food wrap materials less likely to absorb grease or salad dressing so consumers don’t have to deal with soggy wraps or plates. The problem is that studies now show that PFAS can migrate into our foods, especially salty, fatty or acidic foods.

“Avoiding greasy fingers isn’t worth the risk of getting cancer,” said Emily Rogers, Zero Out Toxics Advocate for PIRG (Public Interest Research Group). “They [PFAS chemicals] should not be near our food or body as they are toxic and linked to cancer, fertility issues and a wide range of health issues. The convenience these chemicals have provided over the past 50 plus years is not worth the health risk.”

The eight most toxic

Consumer Reports tested its collection of food packaging samples for “total organic fluorine content” because “all PFAS contain organic fluorine,” the report said. All eight restaurants on this list had at least one, some had more; one had five – food packaging containing more than 100 parts per million (ppm) of total organic fluoride, actually a measure of PFAS levels. Anything with more than 100 ppm organic fluoride will be banned in California starting January 2023.

Below is the list of the most toxic food packaging, ranked by increasing levels of PFAS.

Taco Bell Chips and Cheese
Courtesy of Taco Bell

Taco Bell’s bag of tortilla chips contained 145 ppm organic fluoride.

In 2020, the chain pledged to remove PFAS, phthalates and BPA from all consumer packaging materials by 2025.

Two bags of mcdonalds fries
Shutterstock

McDonald’s had several packaging items containing organic fluoride levels above 100 ppm. Its paper bag for fries was the worst at 250.3 ppm, followed by the bag for cookies at 250 ppm, the bag for Chicken McNuggets at 219 ppm and the Big Mac container at 195.3 ppm.

Looks like Mickey D’s has a lot of work to do to stay compliant with new California regulations next year. The channel previously pledged to ban PFAS until 2025.

small brown paper bag
Shutterstock

The salad chain’s paper bag for focaccia contained 288 ppm organic fluoride.

Sweetgreen did not respond to our requests for comment. However, the chain told Consumer Reports: “We may have traces of fluoride in our bowls. Unfortunately, PFAS are a widespread problem and are present in everyday life, from tap water to the air. by the ground.”

burger king cookies
Burger King/Facebook

Burger King’s paper bag for cookies and French toast sticks was a high offender with 345.7 ppm organic fluoride. The chain’s Whopper Wrapper and Chicken Nuggets Bag also contained levels above 100 ppm, which will be banned in California starting next year.

Restaurant Brands International, the chain’s parent company, released an official statement for the Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes brands the same day CR’s investigation was released, saying it plans to eliminate PFAS from all consumer packaging globally by the end of 2025 or sooner.

Arby's Salted Caramel Chocolate Cookie
Ronald B / Tripadvisor

Arby’s paper bag for cookies contained 457.5 ppm of organic fluorine.

Inspire Brands, the parent company of Arby’s, did not respond to our requests for comment.

chick yarn a
Chick-fil-A/Facebook

The chicken chain sandwich wrapper was found to contain 553.5 ppm organic fluoride, a high offender on the list.

A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A responded to our request for comment with the following statement: “Chick-fil-A has intentionally removed added PFAS from all future newly produced packaging in our supply chain. Although some legacy packaging may still be in restaurants, it should be removed by the end of the summer.”

cava kids meal trays and fiber bowls
CAVA / Facebook

CAVA’s fiber tray for children’s meals was found to contain 548 ppm organic fluoride, while its fiber bowl for cereals was at 508.3 ppm. In fact, the chain had five items over 100 ppm, including a wrapper for pitas and a bag for pita chips.

“We remain committed to eliminating added PFAs from all food packaging and have partnered with new like-minded suppliers who are equipped to meet CAVA’s commitment to responsibly sourced packaging with no added PFAs,” the channel said. Eat this, not that!. “Due to a multitude of pandemic-related factors, and in particular global supply chain shortages, the transition to phase-out of added PFAs, which began in August 2021, is taking longer than expected. Our teams are working with our suppliers to complete the transition within the year.”

nathan's famous hot dog and fries
Nathan’s Famous / Facebook

Nathan’s paper bag for the sides with a green stripe was found to have the highest level of PFAS of all the items tested, with 876 ppm organic fluorine. The chain’s paper bag with a red stripe fared slightly better at 618 ppm. His sandwich wraps were at 104 ppm.

Nathan’s Famous told Consumer Reports that it is redoing its packaging and eliminating the aforementioned packaging items that top the list.

Unless you completely avoid dining at fast food and casual restaurants, you can take steps to protect yourself from ingesting high levels of PFAS. Rogers suggested choosing restaurants that have already taken a position on banning PFAS. Conversely, the CR survey showed that Smashburger, Shake Shack, Popeyes (only 2 items tested), Wendy’s, Freshii (only 2 items tested) and Five Guys had packaging tested below 20 ppm PFAS or n hadn’t detected any at all.

There are also petitions you can sign:

      1. PIRG’s petition seeking legislative action to ban PFAS in food packaging can be found here.
      2. Mind the Store’s petition that aims to get retailers (including fast food chains) to phase out PFAS can be found here.
      3. Consumer Reports also listed a petition in its report, specifically targeting Arby’s and Nathan’s Famous. It can be found here.

“People shouldn’t have to be investigators trying to figure out what packaging contains these chemicals. The system should be set up so that we can buy products with confidence and know they don’t contain chemicals. toxic,” concluded Rogers.

With organizations and consumer advocacy groups like PIRG, Mind the Store and Consumer Reports continuing the fight, we may get there one day.

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