Anyone who has baked fish, roasted vegetables, or tried to keep meat juicy in the oven has likely used aluminum foil in their efforts. This household convenience has been used in many homes across the world for decades, but there has been some hype on the internet about it being harmful to our health. So, is foil really a danger or is it another myth that is as flimsy as the substance itself?
Aluminum is everywhere
Before we go too far into the guts of the issue, it is worth reflecting on what we’re talking about. Aluminum foil, sometimes known as tin foil, is a paper-thin sheet of shiny aluminum metal. So far so obvious. It is mass-produced through a process of rolling large slabs of the metal until they are remarkably squashed – around 0.2 millimeters (0.008 inches) in thickness.
These metal sheets have a wide range of uses outside of the kitchen, including in industrial packaging, insulation, and transportation, as well as “protecting your thoughts” with snazzy hats.
This highlights the first stumbling block for the claim that aluminum foil is dangerous for your health – aluminum is everywhere, and it isn’t necessarily just the foil that is the issue. It is naturally occurring and is the third most abundant element in the Earth's crust. In its natural state, it is usually bound up with other elements such as phosphate and sulfate, so in addition to being in things like food packaging, baking trays, and even cosmetics, it is also in the soil, in our drinking water, and in our food (it is naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, grains and dairy products).
Food additives, such as preservatives, coloring agents, and artificial thickeners also contain aluminum, and sometimes in quantities far higher than home-cooked alternatives.
The amount of aluminum you eat depends on a few factors, which relate to how easily it is absorbed into the food itself, how rich in aluminum was in the soil in which the food was grown, how it was packaged and stored, and whether it contains additives.
The metal is also present in trace amounts in many medicines, especially in antacids. But with all these cases, it is important to remember that only a fraction of the aluminum you ingest will actually be absorbed by your body. The rest of it will disappear down the toilet either in your feces or in your urine.
It is true that aluminum can be dangerous to your health, but this is at high levels. Some research has found evidence that the metal may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, as elevated levels have been seen in people living with the condition, while others have speculated that it can be connected to cancer. But the results are far from conclusive and further large-scale research is needed.
But what about foil?
As with many metals, it is important to minimize the amount we consume, but it is difficult to eliminate it altogether. The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have stated that it is acceptable to have low levels of aluminum in our systems, around 2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per week.
That having been said, research has shown that aluminum contained in cooking utensils and in foil, as with other coatings, can leach into your food. The factors that impact the amount of leaching include the temperature you cook at, the acidity of the food, and the presence of other ingredients, such as spices and salts. One study published in 2006 showed that the amount of aluminum in baked red meat prepared in foil could increase by as much as 89 percent to 378 percent.
This may seem staggering, but so far there does not seem to be any solid evidence that such an intake of aluminum from foil is linked to an increased risk to health.
If in doubt, you can limit the risk by avoiding cooking with foil at high temperatures, using less of the foil on your food, avoiding relying on aluminum-coated utensils, and avoiding mixing aluminum foil with acidic foods.
You can also lower the amount of aluminum you consume by focusing on home-cooked meals, rather than commercial processed alternatives.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.