A new study of five major grocery chains found that their packaging contained the highest levels of harmful chemicals—and only one store had none.
Whole Foods Market is facing backlash from its core fan base after a new study ranked the grocer the worst for potentially harmful packaging, as Bloomberg reports. Given that Whole Foods is known for a focus on health and environmental friendliness, the study made headlines yesterday, and caused the grocer to immediately respond to the study's claims.
The study, which was commissioned by environmental lobbying group called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, found that Whole Foods' paper-coated packaging had been treated with a class of chemicals called PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) that have previously been linked to cancer.
The grocery chain's to-go containers and food papers contained higher amounts of these chemicals than any other grocer in the study. Researchers also found high levels of fluorine, which is considered poisonous, in five of the 17 items tested at Whole Foods. Four of these items were containers sourced from the salad and hot-food bars.
The other retailers involved in the study include Albertsons, Kroger, Trader Joe's, and chains under the Ahold Delhaize umbrella (which owns Food Lion and Shop & Stop). Researchers collected samples from 20 stores across 12 different states, finding other traces of toxic chemicals outside of Whole Foods Market. Kroger, Albertsons, and Ahold Delhaize had fewer items in total that tested positive for PFAS chemicals, which was found in deli and bakery papers at these grocers.
The study reports that Trader Joe's was the only retailer that had zero items test positive for the chemicals in question.
PFAS is a chemical that is often used to repel grease and water—but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has advised consumers to avoid it. Evidence suggests that the chemical can "cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals." In some areas, food products containing PFAS is outright banned—like in Washington state, for example.
Whole Foods maintains a list of items titled "Unacceptable Ingredients for Food," highlighting how the grocer avoids "ingredients that we find unacceptable in food." Items containing PFAS chemicals are not on that list, but Whole Foods has said that it will remove all packaging from its prepared food bars and bakery areas immediately.
“Whole Foods Market introduced compostable containers to reduce our environmental footprint, but given new concerns about the possible presence of PFAS, we have removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging highlighted in the report,” Whole Foods said in a statement. “We’re actively working with our suppliers to find and scale new compostable packaging options.”
Bloomberg reports that PFAS chemicals are used mostly in stain-proof fabrics, electronics, and products like Scotchgard from 3M. But many kinds of PFAS have also been found in drinking water. In 2017, similar reports pointed out that fast food wrappers also contain harmful levels of PFAS chemicals, more evidence of the proliferation of the harmful chemical in the service industry.