The health hazards of eating fast food have been well documented, but research continues to uncover new reasons to pack your own lunch. Recent research has found that fast food eaters regularly introduce industrial chemicals known as phthalates into their bodies. Phthalates, which are used to soften plastic and vinyl for food packaging, are “endocrine disruptors” linked to infertility, allergies, obesity, asthma and cancer.
Fast food exposure
Researchers from the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health have completed the first study to focus on how fast food exposes people to phthalates. They analyzed data from nearly 9,000 people age 6 and older who participated in federal nutrition surveys between 2003 and 2010. The study group submitted detailed 24-hour food records and urine samples tested for metabolites—degraded forms of the chemical resulting from digestion and energy production—of two phthalates known by their chemical acronyms, DEHP and DiNP.
About one-third of the participants reported eating fast food in the previous 24 hours, including processed or packaged food, carryout or delivery food, and food from restaurants without table service. Among the findings, published in the National Institutes of Health journal Environmental Health Perspectives, those who ate the most fast food had 23.8 percent higher levels DEHP metabolites and about 40 percent higher levels of DiNP metabolites.
Recent research on phthalates has investigated their effects on pregnant women and children. Studies using rats have found that these chemicals can disrupt the male reproductive system. Similar effects have been noted in humans, although cause and effect has yet to be firmly established. Therefore, the American Chemical Society swears the chemicals pose no risk to human health. But he Environmental Protection Agency released a “Phthalates Action Plan” in 2012, noting the agency is concerned about their toxicity and evidence that we’re constantly being bathed in them.
Phthalates are everywhere
In addition to fast food and processed food, phthalates are used in hundreds of products directly applied to our bodies, including cosmetics, perfume, hair spray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, and skin moisturizers. They’re also used to make other flexible plastic products such as shower curtains, wallpaper, plastic wrap and children’s toys. Wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, lubricants, insecticides, medical devices and building materials, also contain phthalates.
The good news is you can proactively minimize your exposure to phthalates. First of all, do your own cooking at home and use fresh ingredients as much as possible. When you eat out, frequent restaurants that use fresh ingredients. Store your leftovers in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic. If you microwave food in plastic containers the heat can leach chemicals into your meal, so use ceramic or glass. Most coffee makers are made out of plastic. If you use one, phthalates even get into your morning pick-me-up. Consider using a French press instead.