It’s common knowledge that fast food is rarely good for you – but a new study now shows that fast food could also be increasing your exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates.
Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid that are mainly used as plasticizers – substances that increase the flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity of plastic. There are numerous kinds of phthalates, and they’re used in a wide assortment of products. Uses include everything from glues, lubricants, building materials, medical devices, paint, perfumes, hairspray and countless other products.
The new study utilized data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2003 and 2010 in the National Health and Nutrition Examinations Surveys. For this survey, participants would report all food and drink consumed in the prior 24 hours, and then submit a urine sample for chemical analysis.
The resulting data showed that of those participants who had eaten at least a third of their calories in the form of fast food, levels of two phthalates called DEHP and DiNP were increased by 23.8% and 39% respectively.
Why DEHP and DiNP are significant
There are a lot of phthalates out there – many of them are natural, and more than a few are contained in foods we consume regularly. The specific phthalates found in this study however, pose some known health risks.
DiNP (diisononyl phthalate) is a mixture of isomers that forms a viscous, oily liquid which is soluble in fat. It is listed as a substance “known to the State of California to cause cancer.”
DEHP (or diethylhexyl phthalate) is the most common member of the plasticizer phthalate family. It is soluble in oil, but not water. It is found in everything from garden hoses to hydraulic fluid to cosmetics. It is generally non-toxic, but studies have shown that it disrupts endocrine, causing decreased fertility in men and increased risk of birth defects and anomalies in pregnant women.
DEHP is also shown to contribute to obesity. When ingested, enzymes in the intestines convert DEHP into MEHP (mono-ethylhexyl phthalate), which is then absorbed. At high enough levels, DEHP exposure can mimic the effects of hypothyroidism – which causes increased weight gain.
There are a number of other potential risks associated with these chemicals – including brain development concerns and respiratory health risks.
Why is my local burger joint feeding me plastic?
Chemicals like DEHP aren’t typically added directly to food. Rather, they are used extensively in food processing and packaging products.
Both of these phthalates are soluble (dissolvable) in fats and oils. Food packaging (such as plastic wrappers) frequently comes in direct contact with food. As a result, the chemicals can leech out into the food, and are thereafter consumed.
Often this food is kept warm or hot, further exacerbating the problem.
Do fast food chains know about this?
In a word, yes.
BPA (Bisphenol A) is another plasticizing chemical that has been used in a wide assortment of products. It is most prominently used in the production of polycarbonate plastic, but is also used in in epoxy coatings on the insides of food and beverage cans.
Since the late 90’s however, BPA has come under increasing scrutiny as a potential health risk. It has been associated with many concerns including breast cancer, early puberty, infertility and more. Its’ use has since been restricted in some types of food packaging and products; In America, BPA has been banned in the production of childrens’ toys that might be teethed or sucked on (think rubber ducks, for example) and infant formula bottles – and in Japan, it has been nearly replaced entirely in the production of canned goods.
Corporate interests are definitely aware of phthalates – and certainly aware that they leech out into food from packaging. Because these chemicals are crucial to producing cost-effective food packaging however, they won’t stop using them until government regulation (or market demand) requires them to.
What can I do?
Stop eating fast food, for starters.
Study participants who ate more than a third of their calories in fast food showed a dramatic increase in phthalates – but those who ate less than one third of their calories still showed a marked increase - 15.5% DEHP and 24.8% DiNP to be exact.
These increases are measured against those who reported no fast food at all in their past 24 hours.
In other words, if you want to eliminate the most significant sources of the phthalates DEHP and DiNP, simply eliminate fast food from your diet. Plain and simple.
BPA can also be avoided, but it requires more attention to detail.
For example – opting for fresh or frozen foods over canned foods can significantly decrease the amount of BPA you put into your system. When you do buy canned foods, look for products packaged in glass bottles. Many foods commonly purchased in cans can also be purchased dry – beans and legumes are a prime example.
BPA leeches into food much faster when hot. When cooking foods – especially in the microwave – use only ceramic or glass dishes. Similarly, avoid putting any kind of hot beverage in plastic cups.
If you were waiting for one last solid argument to push you over the edge and start eating a healthy diet – consider yourself served.
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