salad bar It's the coating on the takeout containers that can be problematic. (Photo: VTT Studio/Shutterstock)

The packaging used to make it easier to take home a meal from a grocery store food bar may be making that meal a bit less healthy.

The watchdog groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future recently released a report on chemicals in food takeout containers. The groups collected 78 samples from 20 different stores in 12 states. The samples were tested for the presence of fluorine, which would indicate the containers were treated with perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.

In Take Out Toxins, the group looked at packaging from Ahold Delhaize (which includes Food Lion, Stop and Shop, and Hanford stores), Albertsons, Kroger, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods Market (owned by Amazon). Surprisingly, Whole Foods had the most unfavorable results. Of the 10 samples that tested positive for fluorine, five of them came from Whole Foods, and the majority of them were takeout containers from the salad and hot bars. In addition, about 11 percent of bakery and deli papers tested were also likely treated with PFAS.

What are PFAS?

non-stick cookware PFAS are found in many products, including non-stick cookware. (Photo: MSPhotographic/Shutterstock)

PFAS are chemicals used in products such as nonstick cookware to keep food from sticking, waterproof clothing to repel water, and food packaging to keep food from sticking while also giving it water and grease resistance.

PFAS have been linked to various health problems such as high cholesterol, compromised immune systems, hormone disruption, low birth rates, weight gain and cancer. This reports focused on the chemical's carcinogenic properties.

Most of the food placed in takeout containers may be in there for only a short time, as the report points out, but the health concern goes beyond the chemicals leaching into the food. Once they are tossed into the trash, containers coated with PFAS can break down "into extremely persistent, mobile compounds that can contaminate soil and move easily into groundwater." In fact, PFAS have been detected in our water systems. Anyone who ingests water (which means everyone) may be in danger of developing health issues caused by PFAS.

Whole Foods' quick response

Four of the five takeout containers from Whole Foods tested positive for fluorine, indicating the containers were likely to have been treated with PFAS. After hearing about the report, Whole Foods removed all of those containers, according to Bloomberg.

In an emailed statement, the grocery chain said, "We have removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging highlighted in the report. We're actively working with our suppliers to find and scale new compostable packaging options."

The bakery packaging mentioned in the statement was the one other item from Whole Foods that tested positive.

What about the other stores' scores?

take out container Changes in packaging haven't completely solved the problem yet. (Photo: Fascinadora/Shutterstock)

Only Trader Joe's came out unscathed in the report. None of the containers tested from that grocery chain tested positive for fluorine. Here are the results from the other stores:

  • Ahold Delhaize: One of their six bakery/deli papers tested was positive for fluorine as did one of the three single-use plates tested.
  • Albertsons: One of the company's seven bakery/deli papers tested was positive.
  • Kroger: The only takeout container tested from the grocery chain tested positive. One of their 11 bakery/deli papers tested was positive.
  • The report also looked at trays for cook-at-home food and baking/cooking supplies, but none of the samples from any of the stores tested positive.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Whole Foods takeout containers don't pass test
Study of grocery store containers finds PFAS chemicals in two-thirds of containers tested, and Whole Foods' salad bar containers were the most problematic.