Chemicals that have been shown to have potentially disruptive effects on hormones in the body — a category known as phthalates, which are used to soften plastics used in food production and packaging — are common in many fast food items, according to a new study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.
Phthalates are widely referred to as endocrine disruptors — also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — since they may interfere with how many different hormones function in the body. This wider group of chemicals has gained mainstream attention in recent years, and a major report published earlier this year by the Endocrine Society raised the alarm on how EDCs may harm human health in different ways, including by potentially increasing the risk for diabetes and reducing fertility.
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Concerning levels of phthalates in fast food items
The latest study on phthalates found that 70% to 86% of fast food items tested contained concerning amounts of these chemicals, as noted in a UPI article on the study. The study involved 64 different food samples, including hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, and cheese pizza. Using a technique called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, the researchers looked for 11 different chemicals in the category of phthalates and other plasticizers.
The researchers found that out of all the chemicals they tested for, the highest concentrations were of a chemical called DEHT. The median level of DEHT was 2,510 µg/kg, with a significantly higher level typically seen in burritos (6,000 µg/kg) than in hamburgers (2,200 µg/kg). The maximum level of DEHT seen in any food was 12,400 µg/kg, nearly five times the median level of this chemical found in foods than contained it. DEHT was also seen in a greater proportion of food items than any other chemical in the study, at 86%. Another chemical called DEHP was found in 70% of food items, and a chemical called DnBP was found in 81% of food items. In general, food items containing meat tended to have higher concentrations of chemicals than those that didn’t contain meat. Out of all the food categories tested, cheese pizza tended to have the lowest levels of most chemicals.
The researchers noted that several scientific groups have called for regulatory action to limit the amount of phthalates and other plasticizers found in food items — but that there’s no indication these chemicals will be regulated in a meaningful way any time soon. “Until the U.S. takes regulatory action to address phthalate contamination in foods, these findings could push restaurants to voluntarily adopt policies to eliminate harmful chemicals in their foods,” they wrote. “Furthermore, these results, if confirmed, can inform individual, market-based […] exposure reduction strategies.” In other words, if you’re concerned about your exposure to these chemicals, you can choose to eat less of highly processed fast food items.
Want to learn more about chemicals and diabetes? Read “Are Endocrine Disruptors Disrupting Your Life?” and “Report Calls for Action to Reduce Impact of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals.”