One word: plastics.
What I talk about when I talk about plastic gloves, those endlessly hip mushrooms, and fabric made from algae.
The headline lured me in: “Some fast-food items contain plastics linked to serious health problems, new report shows.” I read it from start to finish growing increasingly disturbed. I placed the story aside to read again later.
When I went back to it, I looked up the study referenced in the article. The study found that pthalates (an industrial chemical) were found in food samples taken from chains including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Chipotle. These included DnBP, which has been linked to a heightened risk for asthma, and DEHP, which has been linked to an increased risk of reproductive problems. Other problems: disruption to the endocrine system (yes, that’s where diabetes comes from) and behavioral disorders in children.
It was a lot to take in.
The main source of pthalates in food are the ubiquitous plastic gloves worn in food handling, but also in packaging and processing equipment. I hate writing about this stuff because it’s so depressing, but it gets worse. In a quick internet search, I found another study from 2019 that pointed out almost the very same problem. Instead of food, they focused on gloves.
The 2019 study reported that "any vinyl glove may contain phthalates due to poor global supply chain management and lack of transparency—there is no way to know without screening each glove.” On average, the study said, more than 30% of each vinyl glove is made up of chemical softeners, such as phthalates or DOTP, which can leach into meals during food prep.
I thought about the plastic gloves I wore weekly at my local food pantry. I thought about how many more people were wearing gloves during the pandemic. I thought about more people ordering take-out when we were ordered to stay in. I thought about low-income communities that are surrounded by fast food chains, and also the same people that work in them. It was a lot to think about.
Not surprising, people who reported eating more fast foods had higher levels of phthalates in their system. Researchers found that chicken burritos and cheeseburgers tested highest for DEHT. Cheese pizzas and fries had the lowest levels. People who cook their own food—those of us with more money, more time, more resources that are unfairly granted in this world—have lower levels.
There are alternatives—frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and gloves made of polyethylene plastic—yet this newer study from 2021 shows us that few have been adopted.
Throughout its time, the FDA has permitted thousands of industrial chemicals to be used in materials that come in contact with food. But they don’t go back to see if there are problems—they have to be reported in, and enough have to be received for the FDA to respond. I say in my book that the FDA is reactive, not proactive. Recently, I said this same line at a conference. A woman leapt up and yelled out that she used to work for the FDA and that I was wrong. We briefly went back and forth until she sat down. Later, I introduced myself and we had lunch together. Her name was Larisa (I know!), and all felt a bit meta. But I look forward to learning more from her.
The FDA, in case you’re wondering, regulates food packaging and food processing equipment as “indirect food additives.” There’s more to learn here certainly, but first, I’ll deal with the plastic gloves at my food pantry.
Remember Spyce, the robotics restaurant purchased by Sweetgreen? I wrote about the uptick in this type of automation in my Sept 17th newsletter. Well, Spyce closed their downtown Boston location. Their one remaining location near Harvard is still open, but for how long?
If I knew more about mushrooms (mainly which ones would kill me), I would go looking for them in the woods. But I don’t. Instead, I’ve tried my hand at growing them at home. I tested Smallhold and because they are touchy--for things like humidity, light and temperature--I was successful about half the time. And while the mushroom was beautiful to look at, the block and the plastic bag, were pretty blah. So now there’s an alternative. GE Appliance’s FirstBuild lab has created a container of sorts that looks like it could solve most if not all of my complaints. It’s the size of a microwave, but it can self-water for a week, which is a relief, it has a fan and includes sensors to watch over it. Read about the trial on Fast Company or go ahead and back the Indiegogo campaign, which has already raised half a million dollars.
My obsession for algae continues with Algaeing (terrible name), an Israeli startup that is making biodegradable, non-toxic textiles, fibers and dyes. Algaeing uses algae grown in seawater in indoor vertical farms powered by solar energy. The green stuff is converted into a liquid and combined with cellulose, a plant fiber, then dried and made into fiber.
Did someone say bagels? I miss living a few blocks away from Russ & Daughters, Katz’s Delicatessen, and Black Seed Bagels. (But also: better for my waist line.) Instead I offer you this calorie-free read: a Times piece about the rise of the designer deli.
Where you can find me:
New podcast alert: I was on Liz Williams “Tip of the Tongue” podcast. Liz is the founder and curator of the Southern Food & Beverage museum. Next time I’m in NOLA, I am definitely dropping by for a visit. You should too!
I’ll be leading a panel on November 3rd around food waste from an investors perspective at the Food Tech Congress. Why yes, it will be virtual.
I’m doing an intimate fireside chat with S2G Ventures on November 4th.
I’m leading a panel on the new wave of sugar for Rabobank on November 10th.
I’m taping a “5 Things I Learned About the Future of Food” event with Extended Sessions on December 15th. It will be something like a MasterClass…if I was someone MasterClass would go after. The class will be a ticketed thing, but one you can watch at any time. More info to come.
I’ll be talking with the Friends of the Alameda public library on January 19th at 7pm. Online of course. Link to come.