Keith Vorst, a new associate professor in food science and human nutrition, studies the compounds released into packaged foods. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.
Keith Vorst, a new associate professor in food science and human nutrition, studies the compounds released into packaged foods. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.

Iowa State professor studies safety of recycled plastic, food packaging

An Iowa State University professor is looking at how packaging can affect the safety of the food it touches.

“We utilize a lot of packaging materials which contain plastics that have additives and are subject to temperature changes,” said Keith Vorst, a new associate professor in food science and human nutrition. “We don’t really understand what leaches into our foods completely and we don’t understand the effects those compounds have on the human body.”

Vorst is studying whether food is still safe after being stored for a long period of time. He is looking to see if autism, Alzheimer’s, and even weight gain are affected by the additives in food packaging material.

“There are residual compounds found in the brain that shouldn’t be there,” he said. “Now I know where those compounds are in the food chain. I know they’re there — but do they accumulate over time?”

Vorst said some packaged food contains chemicals and compounds, including heavy metals, that don’t belong there. He said he wants to know why the compounds are now showing up in the food and how it’s affecting the human body.

“We’re just now starting to look at these interactions in details and it has me concerned because we’re seeing things that shouldn’t be there,” Vorst said. “[These chemicals] come from either the plastic or somewhere in the environment. They shouldn’t be there and they’re there — at levels that are excessive. We don’t know the long-term effect on human health.”

Vorst, who joins Iowa State after spending five years at California Polytechnic State University, said he applied for the position because of Iowa State’s better resources, research facilities, and larger department.

“Cal Poly is a teaching school,” he said. “Iowa State has more research resources.”

Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair in food science and human nutrition, said Vorst brings an expertise in food safety technology.

“He has created new technologies to monitor food safety parameters and to detect and quantify contaminants in food packaging materials,” she said.

One of Vorst’s projects looks at water bottle packaging. His research shows that the safety and quality of recycled plastic is affected by where it is manufactured.

“My big area of research is recycled plastics,” Vorst said. “How can we make recycled plastics safer and more cost efficient?”

Vorst is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a study about the potential damage caused by the transportation of food.

“We’re looking at the product from the time it is taken out of the field to the point it reaches the retailer and the temperature abuse it sees,” he said. “This gives us an idea of what conditions are going to be like in the product and product packages.”

KEY CONTACTS:

Keith Vorst, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University, 515-294-3011, kvorst@iastate.edu

Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University, 515-294-5991, ruthmacd@iastate.edu

Matthew Leimkuehler, graduate assistant, College of Human Sciences, Iowa State University, 515-294-9424, hswriter@iastate.edu

  • Quick Look

    Keith Vorst, a new associate professor in food science and human nutrition, studies how the chemicals and compounds released into packaged foods are changing the human body.


  • “We utilize a lot of packaging materials that contain plastics that have additives that are subject to temperature changes. We don’t really understand what leaches into our foods completely and we don’t understand the effects those compounds have on the human body.”

    Keith Vorst