Study indicates fast food contains industrial chemicals linked to health problems such as infertility, diabetes and allergies

People who eat a lot of fast food have higher levels of chemicals that “have been linked to a number of adverse health outcomes, including higher rates of infertility,” especially among men, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post.

Researchers at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., say the connection could have “great public health significance,” Ferdman writes. “Specifically, the team found that people who eat fast food tend to have significantly higher levels of certain phthalates, which are commonly used in consumer products such as soap and makeup to make them less brittle. . . . The danger, the researchers believe, isn’t necessarily a result of the food itself, but rather the process by which the food is prepared.”

Here’s how the study was done: Researchers analyzed diet and urinalysis data for nearly 9,000 people, collected as part of federal nutrition surveys in 2003-2010. “Food eaten at or from restaurants without waiters or waitresses was considered fast food. Everything else — food eaten at sit-down restaurants and bars or purchased from vending machines — was not,” Ferdman writes. “The first thing the researchers found was that roughly one-third of the participants said they had eaten some form of fast food over the course of the day leading up to the urine sample collection,” which fits with government estimates.

People who said they had eaten fast food in the previous 24 hours “tended to have much higher levels of two separate phthalates,” Ferdman reports. Those who said they ate only a little fast food had levels 15 and 25 percent higher than those who said they had eaten none. “For people who reported eating a sizable amount, the increase was 24 percent and 39 percent, respectively. And the connection held true even after the researchers adjusted for various factors about the participants’ habits and backgrounds that might have contributed to the association between fast-food consumption and phthalate levels.”

The study was reported in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“There is little consensus on the harms of phthalates, which are widely used in commerce and give materials such as food packaging added flexibility, except that exposure to them is widespread,” Ferdman writes, citing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But there is growing concern that the chemicals could pose a variety of risks, particularly when observed in the sort of levels seen in the study.”

Noting several other studies, such as those linking the chemicals to diabetes and allergies, Ferdman reports, “Many governments have moved to limit exposure to the industrial chemicals. Japan disallowed the use of vinyl gloves in food preparation for fear that their use was compromising health. The European Union, which limits the use of the chemical, has been nudging manufacturers to replace it. And the United States restricted its use in toys.”

So, why do people who eat fast food seem to have much higher levels of these chemicals? That is unclear, Ferdman writes, “but it’s easy enough to guess: the sheer amount of processing that goes into food served at quick-service restaurants.

The more machinery, plastic, conveyor belts, and various forms of processing equipment that food touches, the more likely the food is to contain higher levels of phthalates. And fast food tends to touch a good deal more of these things than, say, the food one purchases at a local farmers’ market.”

Ferdman concludes, “It certainly seems as though eating fast food is more toxic than avoiding it, and not for the obvious reasons.” He quotes Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University: “Traditional fast food was never meant to be daily fare, and it shouldn’t be,” said  “It’s too high in calories and salt and, as we now know, the chemicals that get into our food supply through industrial food production.”

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