The Fast Food Conundrum Grows Toxic

Fast food contains phthalates, industrial chemicals used in plastic, George Washington University study found.


It’s no secret that fast food can be extremely unhealthy. The majority of it is loaded with fats and sugars, as well as preservatives. Oh, and potentially toxic industrial chemicals—those are in there too.

According to a press release issued by the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, a new study has found that people who consume fast food are exposed to higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates. This is the first study to address the presence of these chemicals in fast food.

Phthalates are a type of industrial chemical used to make plastics more flexible and difficult to break, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They’re often found in food packaging materials, tubing for dairy products and other items used in fast food production. Previous research has suggested that these chemicals can leach out of plastic food containers and infect highly processed food.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at data from 8,877 participants who answered questions about everything they’d eaten in the last 24 hours, including fast food. Researchers also took urine samples from each participant to look for two specific phthalates—DEHP and DiNP.

The study found that people who had eaten fast food in the last 24 hours had 23.8 percent higher levels of the DEHP byproducts in their urine than those who hadn’t, and almost 40 percent higher levels of DiNP byproducts.

"Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults,” lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, said in the press release.

Dr. Zota is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute SPH.

This study contributes to a larger body of research that is trying to assess the potential harms of phthalates that are found not only in food, but also in several personal products, such as toys, perfume and other consumables.

Though the health effects haven't been confirmed, previous research has shown that phthalates affect the reproductive system of lab animals, according to the CDC. Though Congress banned the use of phthalates in toy manufacturing in 2008 due to health concerns, they remain legal in food-packaging materials and containers.

While more research is needed to determine the exact health consequences of eating phthalates, Dr. Zota offered advice in the press release for anyone concerned about consumption.

"People concerned about this issue can't go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food. A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates," Dr. Zota said.

The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

It was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.