Plastic Food Containers Causing Weight Gain: Study

Excessive amounts of plastics and the chemicals associated with them are making their way into our bodies – primarily by transference from food packaging into the food we eat, but also in the form of microplastics. All together, we humans eat an estimated 44lbs of plastic over the course of our lifetimes.

The chemicals in these plastics have been shown to be quite dangerous for human health. We have published numerous pieces over the past decade and a half on the scientific link between the estrogen-based chemical bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA, lining food cans and drink bottles and a host of serious health complications, including weight gain/obesity.  BPA, along with a host of other chemicals found in our food, have been labeled “obesogens” by scientists, because these chemicals have been determined to be endocrine disruptors–chemicals that alter our hormonal systems and trigger weight gain. 

For years, experts have been cautioning against plastic food containers and the chemicals they contain, particularly for hot, acidic or oily foods which can render the plastics unstable and increase the risk of chemical leaching into the food. Now, the findings from a new scientific study suggest that chemicals in even more types of plastic food wrappers and containers are also migrating into our food and they are also linked to weight gain.

Study overview

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology set out to determine what chemical compounds exist in 34 common plastic items that touch things we eat, such as yogurt cups, juice bottles, styrofoam meat trays, gummy-candy packages, and plastic wrap used for produce and cheese, as well as items often found in kitchens, like polyurethane placemats and sponges.*

Of the 55,000 chemicals the researchers found in these items, only 629 were identifiable, (the remainder are mystery chemicals that are unknown, unstudied and unregulated), with 11 identified chemicals being known metabolic disruptors such as phthalates and bisphenols, which interfere with our bodies’ ability to regulate weight, among other troubling health effects. But the news gets worse: when exposed to in vitro human cell cultures (studies have not used human or animal test subjects), far more chemicals than the identified 11 metabolic disruptors triggered adipogenesis – the process underlying obesity, in which cells proliferate and accumulate an excess of fat.



Bottom line:  This new study demonstrated that daily-use plastics contain potent mixtures of metabolic-disrupting chemicals (MDCs) and can be a relevant yet underestimated environmental factor contributing to obesity.  Reducing our plastic exposure, therefore, should be everyone’s overall goal.  Furthermore, scientists argue that we need to start reducing our exposure to plastic without waiting for more slow-moving research to unequivocally prove that the plastics in our food, products, blood and organs are risk factors for bad health outcomes.

*The study revealed that some plastic producers, whether intentionally or not, are making less harmful forms of plastic. While some plastic products carried chemicals that made fat cells proliferate, other similar products did not. For instance, PET, the transparent plastic used mainly for water bottles, does not contain metabolism-disrupting chemicals and is, in fact, relatively chemically simple. Additionally, some polystyrene styrofoam fruit trays had an obesogenic effect on cell cultures, but others did not.

Journal reference: Johannes Völker, Felicity Ashcroft, Åsa Vedøy, Lisa Zimmermann, and Martin Wagner, Adipogenic Activity of Chemicals Used in Plastic Consumer Products. Environmental Science & Technology, 2022 56 (4), 2487-2496.

DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c06316