As if we needed yet another reason why fast food is unhealthy. New research from George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health finds that people who eat fast food have higher levels of the toxic chemicals phthalates in their bodies.
We're concerned about these chemicals because they're linked to hormone disruption and harm to the reproductive system, especially before birth and for young children who are still developing.
The researchers looked for evidence of exposure to the phthalates DEHP and DiNP in people and compiled information on how much fast food they ate. They found that more fast food equated to more phthalates. People who didn't eat fast food had the lowest levels of these phthalates, people who ate a little fast food had slightly higher levels, and people who ate a lot of fast food had the highest levels of all. In fact, these high-consuming fast food lovers had, on average, 24% higher levels of DEHP breakdown chemicals and 40% higher levels of DiNP breakdown chemicals in their bodies!
How do these phthalates get into food? PVC (polyvinyl chloride) materials that come into contact with food during processing and in the packaging seem to be a main culprit. Phthalates are added to PVC to make it flexible, but these chemicals can easily leach out of the PVC. Studies (Cao 2010, Serrano 2014) find that tubing, conveyor belts and food packaging, as well as gloves used by food handlers, all can leach phthalates into food. Foods high in fat, like dairy and meat products, are especially likely to contain higher levels of phthalates.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned DEHP from some children's products, and proposed last year to ban DiNP permanently from these products as well. But as this study shows, phthalates enter our bodies from food too— and a number of studies find that food is actually the biggest piece of the puzzle when it comes to the phthalates in us. (For more on how different exposures to the same chemical can really add up, see my blog here.) Toxic phthalate chemicals shouldn't be in our food supply, period, whether we're talking about fast food or milk from an organic dairy.
But the good news is that there are some simple steps we can take now to avoid these nasty chemicals (and eat healthier in the process!). A 2011 study showed dramatic reductions in DEHP exposures when participants ate food with limited packaging. Choosing these less processed, fresh foods can also help avoid added sugar, salt and trans-fat.
Find more tips on avoiding phthalates here.