All the Fast Food You Love Contains Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals, Study Finds

New research found that many fast food meals contained hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates. Researchers found many phthalates and other chemicals that could replace them in fast food meals, such as fries, burritos, and cheeseburgers. Although the health effects of these chemicals are still being researched, the authors believe that more should be done in order to prevent them from our food.

The widely-used type of plasticizer Phthalates is used to give plastic and other materials flexibility. Phthalates are also an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC). They mimic or otherwise impair the hormones that we naturally produce like estrogen and testosterone. Both animal and human studies have shown that phthalates can have a negative impact on children's development and increase their risk of developing health conditions such as obesity and asthma. However, the strength of these associations aren't known.

Plastics are omnipresent in our daily lives and so are the chemicals in them, such as phthalates. Researchers from George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health found that fast food may be a high-risk source of exposure. Their 2018 study looked at urine samples from Americans who participated in a national survey. It found that people who reported having eaten at fast food restaurants were more likely than those who had eaten at home.

The new research was led by the same authors and focused on fast food. The researchers collected 64 samples of food from six restaurants in San Antonio, Texas. They also sampled Tex-Mex restaurants, a pizza shop, and a Tex-Mex place. They also tested them for phthalates and other plasticizers, which have been used to replace phthalates.

Overall, 81% of food products contained the phthalate di–n-butylphthalate (DnBP), and 70% contained di(2-ethylhexyl] phthalate (DEHP), both of which have been linked to fertility problems. Around 89% of food items contained di(2-ethylhexyl terephthalate, a non-phthalate plasticizer. Although some research suggests that DEHT might be safer than other phthalates it has not been extensively studied so far, any conclusions about its safety in humans are still uncertain. The highest concentrations of all chemicals were found in meat items such as cheeseburgers or chicken burritos.

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The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology published Tuesday the findings of the teams.

In a Gizmodo statement, Lariah Edwards (postdoctoral scientist at George Washington) stated that phthalates and other plasticizers were common in prepared food at U.S. fast-food chains. This means that many Americans are being served potentially harmful chemicals with their meals. To keep harmful chemicals from entering the food supply, stronger regulations are required.


The plastic packaging used for these foods could be a source of contamination. The gloves that are used to prepare the food for customers could be another. Other tests by the teams revealed that gloves had high levels of plasticizers.

Although the exact risks of fast food phthalates can't be quantified right now, the authors suspect that some groups are more susceptible. While poorer areas tend to have more fast-food restaurants, they also have less access to fresh food. These neighborhoods are often divided not only by class, but also by race and ethnicity. These foods may not be healthy, but phthalates and other toxic chemicals can only make matters worse.


Ami Zota (a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington) said that additional research is needed to determine if people who live in these food deserts are more likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals.

While scientists and safety advocates are now louder about the environmental and health risks posed by plastics (including climate change), industry-led campaigns continue to push back. These chemicals will need to be reduced in the world through systemic efforts. However, these findings and others are another reason why cooking at home is a better and healthier option.