Natural Health News — If you live on a diet of fast foods you may be consuming more than you bargained for – specifically higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates, according to a new study.
In a new study, one of the first to look at fast-food consumption and exposure to these chemicals, those who consumed the most fast food had phthalate levels up to 40% higher than those who ate the least fast food.
Commenting on the study which appears in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University said: “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, and other items used in the production of fast food. Other research suggests these chemicals can leach out of plastic food packaging and can contaminate highly processed food.
» Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to cancer, and commonly found in personal care products. But they can also be found in food – where they can migrate either from packaging or, potentially, from pesticide residues.
» A new study that included fast food consumers found that those who ate the most fast foods had phthalate levels in their urine up to 40 times more than those who did not consume fast food.
» The results reinforce the importance of eating fresh foods that don’t need special packaging which both provide essential nutrition and avoid harmful contaminants.
Grains and meats are the most contaminated
The scientists looked at the diets of 8,877 people who answered detailed questions about their food consumption over the previous 24 hours. These people also provided a urine sample that could be tested for the breakdown products of two specific phthalates – DEHP and DiNP.
Results showed that people in the study with the highest consumption of fast food also had 23.8% higher levels of the breakdown product for DEHP in their urine sample. Those same fast food lovers had nearly 40% higher levels of DiNP metabolites in their urine compared to people who reported no fast food in the 24 hours prior to the testing.
The researchers also determined that grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure. Foods in the grain category included bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles. Other studies have also identified grains as an important source of exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals.
The likely source of exposure is food packaging, however phthalates are also present in some pesticide formulations.
BPA – also present in meat products
In addition, the researchers also looked for exposure to another chemical found in plastic food packaging – bisphenol A or BPA. Researchers also believe exposure to BPA can lead to health and behaviour problems, especially for young children. This study found no general association between total fast food intake and BPA. However, it did find that people who ate fast food meat products had higher levels of BPA than those who reported no fast food consumption.
No safe substitute
This study fits into a bigger field of ongoing research showing that phthalates are in a wide variety of personal products, toys, perfume and even food. In 2008 US Congress banned the use of phthalates in the production of children’s toys because of concerns about the health impact of these chemicals.
Both DEHP and DiNP are still in use in the US 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.
DEHP, the original chemical used as a plasticiser, was banned in 2004 in Europe after researchers elsewhere found a link between exposure to the plasticiser and detrimental effects on human health. Many manufacturers began replacing it with DiNP – though there are questions about how ‘safe’ this is.
The authors sensibly note that frequent consumption of fast food is not recommended because these 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 – especially if they are organic – offers a variety of proven health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates and their potential health risks
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