Attacks on Dining Out

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In the last week, there have been two high profile stories warning consumers of the perils of dining out.  The first was reported in The Chronicle and other sources with the damning headline, Dining out is bad for your health, according to a new study.  The second big news story indicates that coffee causes cancer and that coffee establishments should post warning signs for customers.  In both instances, the issue isn’t actually the food product, but a by-product of the restaurant production process.  

Dining out

The chemical cited in the study is phthalates, which are chemicals found in plastic packaging.  What are phthalates? Here’s how the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s fact sheet describes them:

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).

Phthalates are used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys.

In restaurants, the issue identified is packaging and gloves which can transfer these chemicals into food and beverages.  As most restaurants here in the Bay Area have or are moving to recyclables and compostables, restaurant packaging will become a decreasing source of this chemical being present.  However, if this risk is of concern, you may want to look at your tamper evident containers used for food storage and as drinking vessels by staff, as they most likely contain these chemicals.  

Currently legislation is pending at the state and local levels dealing with everything from coffee cups and straws to chemicals in foodware, and with this new awareness it’s likely not to be long before one of our legislators looks to ban or require labeling for phthalates.  


In the case of coffee, the issue is a chemical byproduct of the roasting process known as  acrylamide.  However, while court’s ruling is about coffee, according to the CDC, acrylamide is a chemical formed when carbohydrate (starchy) foods are cooked. It is also present in tobacco smoke. Acrylamide is used to manufacture polyacrylamide chemicals used in water purification and sewage treatment, paper production, and some cosmetics and soap preparations.  

It’s unclear why coffee is targeted specifically for warnings when even drinking water has this chemical, but nonetheless that’s what a judge ruled this week. Stay tuned for more information as to whether this decision stands and action is needed.  

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