Report: Chipotle, Sweetgreen bowls contain cancer-linked 'forever chemicals'

The synthetic chemicals — called PFAS — never break down naturally.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • The results don't suggest that eating from any of these restaurants poses a serious health risk.
  • The Food and Drug Administration allows a certain amount of PFAS to exist in food containers.
  • Still, the science behind the health and environmental effects of PFAS remains largely unclear.

When you buy food from Chipotle or Sweetgreen, what else is inside that fiber takeout bowl besides a burrito or salad? The answer, according to a recent test from the nonprofit newsroom The New Food Economy, is PFAS. PFAS are a class of synthetic chemicals, called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that never biodegrade in the environment — hence their colloquial name "forever chemicals." PFAs have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, thyroid disease, immunotoxicity, and decreased sperm quality, to name a few.

The New Food Economy tested molded fiber bowls from multiple locations of eight restaurants in New York City, including Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Dig. All samples contained high levels of PFAS, though none exceeded the acceptable threshold set by the Food and Drug Administration. The test also didn't find any of the more dangerous types of PFAS that have been banned by the FDA, and there's currently no evidence to suggest that the PFAS found in the bowls pose a serious health threat.

Environmentally, the results tell a different story. Unlike styrofoam and plastic containers, molded fiber bowls are often advertised as 100-percent compostable, and in recent years, they've become something of a symbol of sustainability in the restaurant world, especially after New York City banned single-use foam products in 2013. Cheap and reliable, these bowls are able to hold all types of food — hot, cold, greasy — because they're treated with PFAS, which act as a grease and water repellent.

The problem with molded fiber bowls is that even though the fiber components will break down over time, the PFAS will remain in the environment forever, eventually making its way into the soil and, alarmingly, our drinking water. A study published in June in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters showed that composting facilities that accepted compostable foodware had 10 times the levels of PFAs compared to those that didn't (though the authors said their results didn't establish causality).

"Researchers who study fluorochemicals have a favorite metaphor," writes Joe Fassler at The New Food Economy. "When it comes to PFAS, the earth is a bathtub with no drain. Because these chemicals have no known half-life, and will never go away naturally, they remain part of the earth's ecology forever. The supply never dwindles. Every drop ever produced will slosh around eternally inside the clawfoot tub that is this planet."

That same "forever" logic also applies to PFAS that enter the body.

"There is research that shows that PFAS chemicals migrate from the dish into the food so that you are likely eating them," Caroline Cox, senior scientist at the Center for Environmental Health, told USA Today.

Still, there are thousands of different types of PFAS, some more dangerous than others, and the research on the exact health effects of PFAS remains unclear.

"It's because there's a lot of data gaps in terms of the information about the toxicity and what amounts are toxic and stuff like that," Cox told USA Today. "It's hard to know exactly how big of a problem it is."

The safe (and environmentally friendly) bet? Bring your own reusable container to restaurants whenever possible. Regarding The New Food Economy's recent report, Chipotle released a statement saying:

"Chipotle only partners with suppliers who make fluorochemical sciences and food safety a top priority. These suppliers operate under strict guidelines set forth by the FDA, and have provided Chipotle with certification that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet the FDA regulatory guidelines for the safe use of only approved PFAS."

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