Eating out may increase exposure to toxic chemicals, study finds
Eating out, particularly at fast-food restaurants, may increase exposure to potentially harmful chemicals that disrupt hormone balance, according to a study.
Researchers looking into phthalates levels in the human body – which have been linked to decreased fertility, pregnancy complications, cancer and asthma – found that the chemical was 35% higher in those who had eaten out the previous day compared to those who cooked at home.
Phthalates are esters that are added to plastics to increase flexibility and longevity. One of their most common uses is in food packaging, but they are also added to a heap of household products, from floor tiles and shower curtains to perfume and sex toys. They’ve previously been banned from some children’s toys in the US.
Other research has suggested that phthalates can leach out of plastic food packaging, into highly processed foods such as burgers or sandwiches. A 2016 study found that people who ate fast food had 40% higher levels of phthalates in their systems.
This study, which is published in the journal Environment International, found that teenagers were particularly susceptible to picking up hormone-disrupting chemicals, with those that ate out regularly at fast-food restaurants having 55% higher levels of phthalates.
“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,” said Dr Ami Zota, one of the authors of the study, from George Washington University in Washington DC.
“Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognised, source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.”
The scientists used data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected between 2005 and 2014. 10,253 participants in the study were asked to recall where they had eaten in the past 24 hours, with 61% reporting they’d eaten out the previous day.
Urine samples of each participant were then analysed to compare levels of phthalates with food intake. The connection between eating out and the chemical was found across the board, but was higher in young people.
Dr Julia Varshavsky, from the University of California at Berkeley, notes that certain groups may be more vulnerable to the effects of phthalates than others: “Pregnant women, children and teens are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals, so it’s important to find ways to limit their exposures. Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.”