People who reported consuming more fast food in a national survey were exposed to higher levels of endocrine-disrupting phthalates, according to a study published by researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.
“People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” says lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute SPH. “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.”
Phthalates belong to a class of industrial chemicals used to make food packaging materials, tubing for dairy products, fragrances in cosmetics, and other items used in the production of fast food. Phthalates are oil and fat soluble, so the combination of heat, plastic, and oil likely leads to an increase in leaching. Phthalates are known to disrupt hormones in the body, in particular estrogen.
Zota and her colleagues looked at data on 8,877 participants who had answered detailed questions about their diet in the past 24 hours, including consumption of fast food. These participants also had provided researchers with a urinary sample that could be tested for the breakdown products of two specific phthalates–DEHP and DiNP.
Zota and her colleagues found that the more fast food participants in the study ate the higher the exposure to phthalates.
The researchers also discovered that grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure. Zota says the grain category contained a wide variety of items including bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles. She also notes that other studies have also identified grains as an important source of exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals.
Zota notes that DEHP and DiNP are two phthalates still in use despite concerns that they leach out of products and get into the human body. Studies of the health impact of exposure to these chemicals have suggested they can damage the reproductive system and they may lead to infertility.
Large studies that might conclusively link phthalates in fast food and health problems could take years to conduct. In the meantime, Zota offers some common sense advice. She notes that frequent consumption of fast food is not recommended because such foods contain higher amounts of fat, salt and calories. “People concerned about this issue can’t go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food,” Zota suggests. “A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates.”