Dining out associated with increased exposure to phthalates

| 6th April 2018
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'Clean eating' may be one of the latest dietary trends - but researchers in the US have discovered that for people who eat out regularly, their food may not only be less than healthy, but could also contain harmful chemicals. CATHERINE HARTE reports

Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important - and previously under-recognised - source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.

Dining out more at restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets may boost total levels of the potentially health-harming phthalates in the body, according to a new study.

People who reported consuming more restaurant, fast food and cafeteria meals had phthalate levels that were nearly 35 percent higher than people who reported eating food mostly purchased at a supermarket, according to the study.

Phthalates - a group of chemicals used in food packaging and processing materials - may disrupt hormones in humans.

Harmful chemicals

The study is the first to compare phthalate exposures in people who reported dining out to those more likely to enjoy home-cooked meals. 

Dr Ami Zota, a researcher at George Washington University, said: “This study suggests food prepared at home is less likely to contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues.

“Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important - and previously under-recognised - source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.”

Measuring exposure

The scientists analysed data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected between 2005 and 2014.

A total of 10,253 people were asked to recall what they ate and where their food came from over the previous 24 hours.

The researchers found that 61 percent of the participants reported dining out the previous day - and that the magnitude of association between phthalate exposure and dining out was highest for teenagers.

Public health problem

Julia Varshavsky, from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and the lead author of the study said: "Pregnant women, children and teens are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals, so it’s important to find ways to limit their exposures."

“Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.”

Many products contain phthalates - including takeaway boxes, gloves used in handling food, food processing equipment and other items used in the production of restaurant, cafeteria and fast food meals. Previous research suggests these chemicals can leach from plastic containers or wrapping into food.

The authors say the findings are worrisome because two-thirds of the US population eats at least some food outside the home each day and phthalate contamination of the food supply also represents a larger public health problem, one that must be addressed by policymakers.

This Author

Catherine Harte is a contributing editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from George Washington University. The full report is available to read in the scientific journal Environment International. 

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