The food you eat at restaurants may be contaminated with harmful plastic-based chemicals

Korin Miller
Writer

You eat out at restaurants and fast-food joints because it’s quick and easy. But a new study found that you’re exposing yourself to a potentially harmful chemical in the process.

The study, which was published in the journal Environment International, used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected between 2005 and 2014. More than 10,000 people participated in the study and were asked to recall what they ate and where their food came from in the past 24 hours, as well as to give urine samples. The researchers found that people who ate at restaurants, cafeterias, and fast-food joints were more likely to have elevated levels of potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates in their body than those who didn’t.

While the association was significant for people in all age groups, the researchers found that it was the highest among teenagers. Teens who ate a lot of food outside their homes had 55 percent higher levels of phthalates in their body than those who ate only at home. Cheeseburgers and other sandwiches were linked with higher levels of phthalates, but only if they had been bought at a fast-food joint, restaurant, or cafeteria. Sandwiches in particular were linked with 30 percent higher phthalate levels.

Phthalates (also known as “plasticizers”) are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re used in “hundreds of products,” the CDC says, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, raincoats, and personal care products.

Photo: Getty Images

They’re “pretty pervasive” in our environment, Nneka Leiba, director of the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living Science program, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Here’s the thing: Phthalates are known to affect the reproductive systems of animals in labs, the CDC says. They can also have an effect on your hormones and endocrine system that can be long-lasting, Leiba says.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about chemicals when you go out to eat food, and you shouldn’t have to worry about the health of the lunch that your kids are getting at school,” a co-author of the study, Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

How did phthalates end up in your food, anyway? They are likely to have leached into it from packaging or from equipment during the processing of the food, Woodruff says.

To lower the odds that you’ll have phthalates in your food, Woodruff recommends eating more fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed food. And, of course, try to eat in more. “Prepare your meals at home,” she says. “It’s going to be cheaper, better for you, and cause you to have less exposures to various types of chemicals.”

Given that phthalates are so prevalent, Leiba recommends trying to do what you can to lower your overall exposure to them. That includes trying to avoid plastic “whenever possible,” she says, including shower curtains made of PVC. It’s also a good idea to store your food in glass containers, if you can, and avoid reheating food in plastic.

You can do only so much to avoid phthalates altogether, but you can do your best to limit your exposure. “Just try to be cognizant that you’re being exposed to them,” Leiba says.

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