In addition to two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun, that fast food burger you just ordered might be served with a side of phthalates. According to a new study from researchers at George Washington University, eating out at restaurants and fast food joints might increase the levels of phthalates – a group of potentially harmful chemicals – in our bodies.
First, even if you’re unfamiliar with phthalates by name, you’re definitely acquainted with some of the products that contain them. Phthalates are chemicals that are used to make plastics more flexible and durable, and are found in hundreds of products, including shower curtains and vinyl flooring – and plastic wrap, food packaging, takeout boxes and even the gloves that food service workers use while they’re preparing each meal.
They can also be found in personal care products like hairspray, nail polish, shampoo and skin care products – none of which you’d like to eat. (In 2008, Congress banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys, due to the health concerns surrounding these chemicals). According to The Guardian, scientists have linked increased phthalate levels to asthma, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and fertility problems.
In 2016, researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University found that frequent fast-food customers were exposed to significantly higher levels of phthalates than those of us who are less familiar with the Dollar Menu. The fast food eaters in the study had phthalate levels that were up to 40% higher than participants who had not recently eaten fast food – and the people in the study who reported eating fast food most frequently had the highest levels of phthalates in their systems.
Earlier this year, the same team of scientists expanded the focus of their research to include other restaurants and cafeterias, not just fast food joints. The results were similarly distressing: people who reported eating out more often had phthalate levels that were almost 35% higher than those who reported buying and cooking their own food.
“This study suggests food prepared at home is less likely to contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues,” says senior study author Ami Zota said. “Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognized source of exposure to phthalates for the U.S. population.”
For their study, Zota and her colleagues analyzed data from the 10,253 participants who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2014. Those who participated were asked to list what they’d eaten in the previous day, and where the food had come from; the researchers then looked for a link between the source of those meals and the level of “phthalate break-down products” in their urine. Although 61% of respondents said that they’d eaten out the day before, the levels of phthalate-related chemicals were highest in teenagers. The study also found that sandwiches – including burgers – were associated with the highest phthalate levels, but only if they’d been purchased from a restaurant.
“Preparing food at home may represent a win-win for consumers,” Zota said. “Home cooked meals can be a good way to reduce sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. And this study suggests it may not have as many harmful phthalates as a restaurant meal.”
More research is needed to understand how and at what point the phthalates are getting into the food supply – or why preparing the same ingredients at home might not result in the same level of exposure as eating them at a restaurant. Either way, packing your own lunch is definitely better for your wallet, and possibly for your long-term health.