Log In

Reset Password

‘Migrating’ plasticizers: Another reason to avoid fast food

If on occasion - and I earnestly hope it occurs no more often than that - you order fast food or dine out, here’s what I’d like you to do. Think about everything you ask for when you place one of your favorite orders.

Have you ever, even just once, requested a side dish of phthalates [‘THal,ts]?

Silly question, right? But whether you request it or not, a study published in the Oct. 27 issue of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology reveals that’s what you’re getting practically every time you eat a meal outside of your house.

Along with related chemicals known as plasticizers, phthalates are used in the manufacturing of many things, including plastic food containers, food packaging, and food wrapping to make the materials softer and more flexible. They are also part of the plastic handling gloves used in food production and restaurants.

While also found in makeup, perfume, shampoo, cardboard, toys, detergents, medical devices, PVC plumbing, vinyl flooring, office supplies, building and automotive materials, garden hoses, and some carpeting, clothing, and furniture, phthalates’ gateway into your body appears to be through ingested food. A prior study published in the June 2018 issue of Environmental International “observed a consistent positive pattern between [phthalate levels] and dining out and across a study population [of more than 10,000].”

So the greatest health concern with these chemicals comes from the fact that the Oct. 27 study found them “migrating” into fast food.

Researchers purchased 64 items from six fast food chains in San Antonio, Texas: McDonald’s, Chipotle, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Burger King. They also obtained handling gloves from three of the establishments.

Back in the lab, they tested the food for 11 types of phthalates and plasticizers and detected 10 of them.

DEHT, a plasticizer used in plastic handling gloves, was found in 86 percent of the items, yet not in the French fries, which makes sense. In commercial food production and fast food establishments, there’s no need for French fries to be touched by gloved hands.

A phthalate called DnBP, however, was detected in 80 percent of the food samples. Another, DEHP, was present 70 percent of the time.

Overall, the items that feature meat, like cheeseburgers and chicken burritos, had notably higher levels of the tested-for chemicals than those that don’t, like cheese pizza.

Lona Sandon, program director of the department of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, explained in a Nourish article for WebMD why this should be no surprise. “Many fast food chains rely on meats, chicken and fish or other foods that are preformed, partially cooked, then frozen, packaged in plastic, and shipped to the restaurant site to be finished at the time of order, [which] gives plenty of time for these foods to sit wrapped in plastic.”

During this time, the so-called migrating takes place, which is cause for more than mild concern.

As far as science can tell, phthalates seem to adversely affect the body’s endocrine system and hormone production. In other studies, they have been linked to developmental, reproductive, and immune system problems - as well as asthma, childhood obesity, heart problems, and certain cancers.

Moreover, a study published in Environmental Pollution just two weeks prior to the phthalates-in-fast-food study estimates that the phthalates in our bodies could be leading to between 91,000 and 107,000 premature deaths in the U.S. per year and costing the nation up to $47 billion per year in lost productivity.

The researchers reached these conclusions by checking the concentration of phthalates in the urine of more than 5,000 adults between the ages of 55 and 65. They then factored in the subjects’ preexisting health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; eating habits; level of physical activity; and other circumstances that could adversely affect hormone production.

Leonardo Trasande, MD - the lead author of the study and a professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU Langone Health, an academic medical center affiliated with New York University - told CNN that their findings simply add to phthalates’ preexisting “rap sheet,” and a “haunting pattern of concern.”

Enough concern that both the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the European Food Safety Authority have declared our present cumulative exposure to phthalates to be too high. Enough concern that in 2009 a U.S. federal law was enacted that banned the use of six specific phthalates in children’s toys and other children’s products.

Which leads to an inevitable question: Has your level of concern been raised?

If so, there are all sorts of measures you can take to limit your exposure to phthalates, but doing more and more cooking at home and less and less eating outside the house is the one that appears to do the most good.

That it will also probably cause you to drop a few pounds and feel better overall is quite a nice bonus.