Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals that make up many consumer products. You might expect to find them more in personal care products, but they migrate easily, which is why you’ll also find phthalates in food.
If endocrine disruptors in plastic toys and personal care products weren’t enough of a health concern, we’re now learning about the dangers of phthalates in food. In fact, phthalate exposure from our food and water supply is greater than we realized.
Most of us know that eating out isn’t the healthiest option. With restaurant menus full of calorie-dense and nutrient-lacking food items, it doesn’t take many trips to the drive-thru to become at risk for the chronic diseases associated with obesity and a high sodium diet.
However, sometimes we get busy and don’t have the time or energy to cook a healthy meal — and if we’re being honest, many of us crave our favorite fast food or takeout from time to time. Although “everything in moderation” is the advice we’re given about many things in life, not all of us are good at following it when our favorite fatty meal is calling our names.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be calling us as often if we knew what exactly was in that hamburger and french fries we just ate. A new study from MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the George Washington University, has come to light on a chemical that can be ordered at your nearest restaurant: phthalates.
Unknown to most of the general public — just ask anyone how to spell or pronounce phthalates — we ingest this chemical on a regular basis and it is a top food-related public health concern. So what exactly are phthalates and why are they in fast food?
Read on to discover the answer and how you can cut this chemical out of your diet.
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates (pronounced THAL-eights) are chemicals used in plastics to add flexibility and durability, and as a dissolving agent as well. They’re found primarily in polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl). This chemical is found in plastic clothing, toys, IV tubing, cleaners, lubricants, cosmetics, and personal care products such as soap and nail polish.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population,” with women containing higher levels of the phthalate chemicals used in personal care products. This chemical can enter our system in a number of ways.
Two of the more common ways are by drinking or eating anything that has been in contact with phthalates. You can also become exposed by using the personal care products that contain this chemical. Inhalation of phthalate particles from contaminated vapors or dust is a possibility of exposure as well.
Infants and children are at greater risk of ingesting this chemical due to their propensity to stick anything and everything in their mouths, so it’s important that your child’s room is healthy and safe.
So far, there is no conclusive data why phthalates are harming our bodies the way they do. Although the definite health effects of phthalate exposure are unknown at this point, there appears to be relationships between this chemical and cancer, reproduction and development issues, asthma, obesity, and endocrine disruption.
Other countries are taking more action against these chemicals than the U.S. currently is. The EU currently restricts certain phthalates in toys and other children’s items. In July 2019, the EU began restricting phthalate levels in electrical and electronic equipment.
How Do Phthalates Get into Food?
Even though phthalates can be found all around us, diet is now being considered as a potential major cause of exposure to this chemical — especially when that diet is mostly comprised of fast food. People who eat out more often were found to have phthalate levels 35 percent higher than people who eat meals prepared at home.
Most of the phthalates in food contamination comes from food processing equipment and packaging. The equipment and packaging used to process certain foods contain phthalates, the gloves employees have to wear when handling food has phthalates, and the take out containers used to bring leftovers home are made up of phthalates as well.
Phthalates have been found in dairy products, meats, fish, oils & fats, baked goods, infant formula, processed foods, and fast foods. In the study, more than 80% of the food samples were found to contain a phthalate known as DnBP, while 86% contained a plasticizer known as DEHT, which is commonly found in food gloves. About 70% contained a phthalate known as DEHP.
Cheeseburgers, chicken burritos and other meat products had the highest plasticizer content, with much higher DEHT levels detected in burritos than in burgers. Cheese pizzas were among the least contaminated foods, while French fries were found to be DEHT-free.
Although the food you buy from the grocery store also goes through some of the same processes as the restaurant food, the amount of handling and food packaging involved is nowhere near the same. Some of the food items that were contaminated by phthalates the most were meats and grain-based food items like burritos, burgers, rice, and noodles.
Although the reason why is uncertain, some guesses are that the fat content in these foods are better at binding with phthalates than other foods, or because they come into contact with this chemical more during processing and packaging. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to refute these scientific claims when it comes to ordering out.
How to Reduce Your Phthalate Exposure
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to avoiding phthalates. The bad news: this chemical is everywhere. Until the government and manufacturing companies make some serious bans and regulations on the use of phthalates in products, there’s no 100 percent way to remove this chemical from your life.
The good news, though, is that you can reduce your exposure to phthalates — a great step you can take towards the removal of toxins from your body. This is especially effective when it comes to your diet. Here’s what you can do today to eat more healthily and less chemically:
- Eat out less and cook at home more. If you do feel the need to eat food from a restaurant every so often, try frequenting an establishment that uses fresh ingredients in their meals.
- If you can, purchase fresh foods over canned or packaged products. Cans and plastic packaging are known to contain harmful phthalates, so by reducing your consumption of these products, you reduce your phthalate levels as well.
- Incorporate more plant-based meals in your diet. Animal-based products contain higher levels of this chemical, so replace a few meals with whole food alternatives.
- Eat organic as much as possible. Phthalates are also found in pesticides and other products used in non-organic farming. With even ice cream shown to contain trace amounts of pesticides, there are few foods that don’t know the touch of chemicals. Organic products will have much lower levels of phthalates due to their lack of dependence on these chemicals.
- Do not leave or heat food in plastic containers. The phthalates in plastic products leak out over time into whatever it touches. To be safe, avoid plastic and keep and heat your food in glass or stainless steel containers.
It can seem like there’s no escape from phthalates in foods. They are used in pretty much everything and can even be found in the food we eat at restaurants. Our country is suffering from an obesity epidemic, but it’s also combating a chemical one as well.
Fortunately, by eating out less and cooking more with fresh, whole food ingredients, we can reduce our waistlines and our exposure to phthalates in food simultaneously.