Study: Eating fast food may expose people to harmful chemicals

A study released by George Washington University's School of Public Health found that eating fast food may expose people to harmful chemicals.

Researchers said the definition of fast food in this study relied on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's definition, which includes basically anything you buy not served on a plate. That includes pizza, burgers, tacos, club sandwiches and anything categorized as takeout or delivery.

The study found those who reported consuming more fast food in a national survey were exposed to higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates.

"I think one reason the study gained so much attention is people never thought something like this would be so possible and so widespread," said Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health and lead author of the study. "In our survey, a third of the population had eaten some type of fast food in the prior 24 hours."

She said data from nearly 9,000 patients of all ages found those who consumed the most fast food in a 24-hour period, at least 35 percent of their daily calories had 20 to 40 percent higher levels of phthalates in their system compared to those who had not eaten fast food.

"I hope it raises public awareness about this greater problem of our society being exposed to industrial chemicals through our food supply," said Zota.

Phthalates are in a variety of products from plastics to perfume. Studies have examined their link to infertility, pregnancy complications, reproductive issues, learning and behavioral problems and more.

In 2008, Congress banned phthalates from children's toys because of health concerns.

But there are multiple sources of phthalates in the processing and handling of food from flexible tubing to food packaging.

"Certain studies have measured the content of phthalates in food before and after it was packaged and found that the levels of phthalates increased 100 percent after packaging," Zota said. "And if the food is hot when it is packaged, that can actually accelerate the migration of the phthalates from the packaging into the food."

Zota said another possible source of these chemicals is the gloves used by food preparers. Japan banned the use of vinyl gloves from food establishments in 2001 because they contain phthalates.

But in the United States, a lot of restaurants have moved to using them instead of latex gloves because so many people have latex allergies.

So how much do you have to eat to see problems? In this study, when fast food was anywhere from one-third to 100 percent of a person's food consumption in the previous 24 hours, they had elevated phthalates levels.

The CDC said most Americans have some level of phthalates in their system because they are so pervasive in products and more research is needed to fully understand the extent of their health effects.

More about the study: