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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