Your Fast Food Meal Probably Comes With a Side of Industrial Chemicals

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We already know fast food meals contain astronomical amounts of fat, salt, and calories (yes, even the salads). Now, it turns out that those notoriously unhealthy meals appear to expose people to phthalatespotentially dangerous industrial chemicals that make plastic more flexible, suggests new research.

In the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers analyzed data from nearly 9,000 respondents (men and women age six and older) collected by the Centers for Disease Control, and found a strong association between fast food consumption in the previous 24 hours and large amounts of phthalates — found in beauty products, medical devices, detergents, food packaging, and plastic wrap — detectable in their urine. Levels of one type of phthalate were 40 percent higher in people who reported eating the most fast food compared with people who hadn’t eaten at fast food restaurants within the last day; in fact, the more fast food they ate, the higher their phthalate levels were.

“It has been known that diet is an important route of exposure to certain phthalates,” says lead author Ami R. Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health. “And in this study, we found strong, consistent correlations between those chemicals and total caloric intake from fast food.”

Although they’re banned in children’s toys (2008) and baby products such as pacifiers (1999) in the U.S., there are currently no restrictions on the use of phthalates in materials that come in contact with food, even though the group of chemicals are under serious review by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, as well as in the European Union.

These hormone-disrupting chemicals are in nearly endless products, and can be leached into the body via touch, inhalation, or consumption. So it’s unsurprising that previous research has found that 98 percent of Americans have phthalates in their systems. Like bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates disrupt hormone function in male and female reproductive systems, and evidence supporting their link to respiratory problems and developmental, learning, and behavioral problems in children is mounting.

BPA was also measured in participants of this study, but researchers found no association between total fast food intake and the chemical compound, although those who ate fast food meat products did have higher levels than the non-fast-food consumers.

Grain fast food products (bread, pizza, noodles, burritos) and meat seemed to be important contributors to phthalate levels, according to current and previous research, Zota says: “We were a little surprised that the grain items on the menu showed such a strong signal.” Their research supports previous findings that processed foods are a handy avenue for phthalates to get into people’s bodies.

“The more foods are processed, packaged, and handled, the more opportunities there are for them to come in contact with phthalates in tubing and packaging,” Zota says.

She says she hopes this study helps raise public awareness about the industrial chemicals they’re exposed to in the food they eat. “This helps ID one potential source that people can act on,” she says.

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