People who eat more fast food are exposed to higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates than people who ate more home-cooked meals, a new study shows.
Researchers studied data from 10,253 participants in a national survey. They asked participants to recall what they ate and where the food came from in the previous 24 hours. The researchers analyzed the links between what people ate and the levels of phthalate breakdown products found in their urine.
“People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” says senior author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.”
People who ate in restaurants and cafeterias also had higher levels of phthalates than people who ate home-cooked meals. The study is the first to compare phthalate exposures in people who reported dining out to those more likely to enjoy home-cooked meals.
Phthalates belong to a class of industrial chemicals used to make plastics used for food packaging, tubing for dairy products, and other items used in the processing of food. Other research suggests these chemicals can leach out of plastic food packaging and can contaminate highly processed food.
The chemicals alter how the body’s hormones function and have been linked to health problems such as birth defects, reproductive disorders, impaired brain development, and cancer.
The researchers report their findings in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Lead author Julia Varshavsky, who completed the research while she was a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, is now a postdoc in reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco.