Eating fast food linked to significantly higher phthalate levels

Fast food
© Matthew Golden/Milken Institute School of Public Health

If the fat, salt and calories in fast food weren’t enough, how about a mouthful of phthalates?

A study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at George Washington University found that people who reported eating more fast food were exposed to higher levels of phthalates.

We’ve been talking about phthalates for years here – this group of chemicals is used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl, and they have been setting off alarm bells for their broad range of potential ill-health effects. In 2008 Congress banned the use of phthalates in the production of children's toys because of concerns about them, but they still run rampant in hundreds of consumer products.

While there has long been concern about phthalates leaching into food from packaging, this new research is the first to look at eating fast-food and exposure levels. The researchers analyzed data from almost 9,000 participants who answered detailed questions about what they ate in the past 24 hours; they also provided researchers with a urinary sample. Tested for the breakdown products of two specific phthalates, DEHP and DiNP, the results were grim.

"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."

According to the FDA, exposure to DEHP (di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate) has “produced a range of adverse effects in experimental animals, but those of greatest concern involve effects on the development of the testicles and the production of normal sperm in young animals.” In California it is listed as a chemical known to cause reproductive toxicity for the developmental and male reproductive endpoints, as per the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) of the California EPA. Meanwhile, DiNP is listed by OEHHA as a chemical that is “clearly shown, through scientifically valid testing according to generally accepted principles, to cause cancer.”

Not surprisingly, Zota and the team discovered that the more fast food study participants ate, the higher the exposure to phthalates was. Those who ate the most fast food had 23.8 percent higher levels of the breakdown product for DEHP in their urine sample and nearly 40 percent higher levels of DiNP metabolites in their urine compared to people who reported no fast food in the period prior to the testing, according to the study.

Grain and meat products seemed to be the worst offenders – the grain category included a wide variety of items including bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles.

More research to conclusively link phthalates in fast food and specific health problems could take years to conduct, says Zota. It’s slippery research that has been slow in coming. But in the meantime, could it really hurt to limit fast food consumption?

“People concerned about this issue can't go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food," Zota says. "A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates."

(But you knew that's where we were going, right?)

Eating fast food linked to significantly higher phthalate levels
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