Scientists find harmful industrial chemicals in fast food

Key points to remember

  • A new study has found plastic-making chemicals in fast foods like chicken nuggets and burgers.
  • Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to learning and behavioral problems in children.
  • Policy and regulatory changes are needed to reduce exposure to harmful industrial chemicals.

Traces of plastic have been found in fast food dishes.

A new study has found that phthalates, a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics more flexible, are often found in foods like pizzas, burgers and chicken nuggets.

“Phthalates are found in many packaging, processing and handling equipment” Lariah Edwards, PhD, a George Washington University researcher who co-authored the study, told Verywell. She added that chemicals can pass from plastic gloves or conveyor belts to food products.

Previous research has linked phthalate exposure to a wide range of health problems, including abnormalities of the reproductive system, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral issues, and more.

In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and childcare articles. However, phthalates can still be used in food packaging and many personal care products.

Plastic manufacturers have started replacing phthalates with alternative plasticizers such as dioctyl terephthalate (DEHT), but limited studies on DEHT have not proven that it is safer. In the new study, DEHT was found in 70% of the food samples.

“We wanted to measure these newer alternative plasticizers because we know they are being used like phthalates are,” Edwards said. “There just isn’t a lot of literature available to allow us to really understand what they do to human health. And that’s concerning because we detect them in the foods we eat.”

Can you avoid exposure to phthalates?

Despite some regulations, phthalates can be found in cosmetics, plastic packaging, hair spray, soaps, and other products.

“Phthalates are kind of a chemical everywhere,” Edwards said.

The new study has shown that these chemicals are more common in meat products than in other food products. Foods like cheese pizza and French fries had the lowest concentration of plasticizers.

“Limiting your fast food, in general, is the other way to minimize exposure, but it’s not something that’s accessible to everyone,” Edwards said. “A stricter policy would be the best way to ensure that we are not exposed to these chemicals. ”

Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, FADA, director of the Center for Nutrition and Food Security at the University of North Florida, noted that microwaving food in a plastic container can also increase the risk of phthalate exposure. Instead, she suggested reheating the food on a ceramic dish.

What this means for you

Check your cosmetics and personal care items to see if the labels say “phthalate free.” The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has a list of phthalate compounds to watch for on labels. You can also contact your representatives to ask them to lobby for more policies banning phthalates and plasticizers in food products.

Although some manufacturers have replaced phthalates with alternative plasticizers, these new chemicals are not well studied.

“Sometimes in our haste to get away from one harmful thing, we go for something else and it hasn’t been studied,” Wright said. “We need more research into the potential damage or the safety of these alternative plastics.”

She cited a similar example in the food industry: replacing butter with margarine. “When we saw that butter contained saturated fat and could increase our risk of heart disease, we rushed to make margarine from vegetable oil,” Wright said.

Although vegetable oils don’t contain saturated fat, a byproduct of margarine is trans-fast, which is also unhealthy, she added.

Instead of using alternative plasticizers, Wright said it’s safer to use plastic-free materials. However, these are often very expensive and policy changes are needed to phase out phthalates and plasticizers from the food industry.

How can policy changes reduce exposure to phthalates and plasticizers?

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 37% of adults ate fast food on any given day. The report also suggests that a higher percentage of black adults consume fast food compared to other racial groups.

“It could be the result of residential racial segregation,” Edwards explained. “Other studies have shown that there are higher densities of fast food restaurants in predominantly color areas.”

An overabundance of fast foods and a lack of access to nutritious foods are just some of the factors that contribute to health disparities in the United States.

“Black Americans are often more exposed to other chemicals, air pollution, things of that nature,” Edwards said, adding that the new study only adds to the fear that some groups are more vulnerable to exposure to phthalates.

Even if consumers have the time and money to prepare meals at home or purchase “phthalate-free” personal care items, significant changes in policies and regulations will make the biggest difference.

“There was a study which showed that sometimes phthalates are still detected in products even if it is not written on the label, which is unfortunate. You have the impression, as a consumer, what can you do? Edwards said.

“Personal choice is important, do what you can,” she added. “But, really, I hope this work informs politics. Because politics is really what’s going to push to make sure we’re not exposed to these chemicals when we shouldn’t be.”

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