Eating fast food = Ingesting harmful chemicals?

Eating fast food = Ingesting harmful chemicals?

New research has found that individuals who eat fast food are exposed to higher levels of potentially toxic chemicals called phthalates, which have been linked to health and behavioral problems in adults and children.

Previous studies have pointed to the likelihood that highly processed foods can become contaminated when chemicals seep into food or beverages from containers made with Bisphenol A (BPA). Researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, DC, were the first to study the relationship between fast-food consumption and exposure to chemicals.

Ami Zota, who led the study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and her co-authors examined data from 8,877 participants. Each participant was given a questionnaire detailing all the food they had eaten in the last 24 hours and submitted a urine sample.

Researchers tested the urine samples to see if they contained breakdown products of phthalates, industrial chemicals that are used to make food packaging materials and additional items used in manufacturing food products, as well as BPA, another chemical used in plastic food packaging.

“People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” said Zota, in a study news release. “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.”

“The health problems caused by these chemicals – both phthalates and BPA – are suspected to include hormonal and developmental problems, especially in infants and young children, as well as the potential for infertility problems,” according to Dr. Diana Zamojski, a family medicine physician with Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak, Lawn, Ill.

Phthalate exposure was highest with meat and grain-based fast food, including take-out pizza. In addition, those who consumed fast food meat products, such as hamburgers, had higher levels of BPA, than those who had not eaten fast food.

“There are many things that can add phthalates to the environment that could be confounding the results of the study,” says Dr. Zamojski. “These chemicals are also found in meats and dairy in general, as well as widely used in many common products such as cosmetics, fragrances and materials, so it’s hard to say if fast food caused these findings.”

While Zota states that it could be years before large studies confirm a link between phthalates, fast food and health problems, she suggests avoiding frequent consumption of fast food because of the amounts of fat, salt and calories they contain.

“It’s widely known that fast food is not the best source of nutrition,” says Dr. Zamojski. “Right now, what we can take away from this early study is yet another reason to proactively eat a diet with more whole foods and less processed, packaged and fast food.”

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About the Author

Kate Eller
Kate Eller

Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”