Space & Innovation

Fast Food Consumers Chow Down on Chemicals

Fast food consumers have come to expect high calories, fat and sodium in their meals. But chemicals, too?

Fast food consumers by now have come to expect high levels of sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat and processed carbohydrates in a typical meal. But what they likely won't anticipate is the potentially harmful chemicals lurking in their food.

Individuals who reported consuming more fast food in a national survey had levels of a group of chemicals known as phthalates 40 percent higher than those who didn't eat fast food as regularly, according to a new study appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

What are phthalates exactly? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they are a class of chemicals used to improve the flexibility and hardness of plastics. They turn up in a range of products, from detergents to lubricating oils to personal hygiene products like soaps and shampoos.

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Phthlates also appear in materials for processing and packaging fast food. In highly processed fast food, the chemicals can leech out and then are consumed by fast food restaurant patrons.

For the study, researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University collected survey responses from 8,877 participants regarding their diet over the past 24 hours. Each participant also submitted to a urinalysis test to detect the levels of Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and Di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), two types of phthalates, in their systems.

Those who ate more fast food had higher exposure to both phthalates, the researchers determined, 23.8 percent higher levels of DEHP and 40 percent higher levels of DiNP.

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Although more research is needed to determine the effects of phthalates in humans, animal testing shows these chemicals can have a detrimental impact on the development of the reproductive system. For example, short-term oral exposure to DEHP at levels higher than typically found in the environment were shown to interfere with sperm formation and delayed sexual maturity in mice and rats, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Even with the research still inconclusive, regulators in the United States and abroad have taken steps to limit the use of phthalates. Both California and the European Union, for example, restrict the usage of DiNP, a possible carcinogen, in various products.

Ami Zota, lead author of the latest study, cautions that it may take years to conclusively link any health problems to phthalates in fast food. For now, there are plenty of other reasons to make healthier meal choices. "A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates," she said.

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Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.