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Dining out raises your risk of exposure to ‘gender bending’ chemicals

Despite the fact that it is known to be worse for our health and nutrition – and our bank accounts – Americans love to dine out. 

But eating meals out exposes us to 35 percent more toxic chemicals than having our meals at home, new research has revealed.    

Phthalates are found in many plastics, and are thought to disrupt sexual development in boys, earning them the nick-name ‘gender-bending chemicals.’

The study authors warned that foods like takeout cheeseburgers are contaminated with phthalates and urged that their findings are just another reason that eating at home is healthier.

Eating out at fast food restaurants and cafeterias puts people at particularly high risks of exposure to toxins from plastic that disrupt hormones and sexual development in boys

An estimated two-thirds of people in the US eat something that they did not make at home every single day.

For many, the pleasure and ease is worth the cost, but the new study’s findings highlight a previously unknown risk.

Plastic has long been an important material to the restaurant industry, and that is true no more than in a fast food restaurant.

Food packaging is a $15 billion per year industry in the US each year. Though not all of this packaging contains plastic much of it does.

If that plastic can bend or stretch without breaking, then chances are that it contains phthalates, which are known as ‘plasticizers.’

The phthalate family of chemicals is also known for being everywhere. It’s in everything from toothbrushes to clothing, as well as plastic gloves, packaging and processing tools found in restaurants.

They can be released form plastic when the material is heated, or left sitting in storage for too long.

We love to be served a hot meal while dining out, but that heat sets phthalates free.

Once their loose from their proverbial packages, you can inhale, ingest or absorb the toxins through your skin.

The researchers interviewed 10,253 participants about their dining experiences from the previous day and tested the levels of phthalates in their urine.

Of the more than 60 percent that had eaten somewhere other than home in the past 24 hours, teenagers who had eaten fast food were the worst off, with levels 55 percent higher than those of people who ate at home.

Though some previous studies had suggested that certain types of food – like sandwiches and cheeseburgers – might carry more toxins than others, but the new study found that any food that came from outside the home increased phthalates levels.

No matter how old a person was, if they had eaten somewhere with sandwiches and burgers, their phthalate levels were 30 percent higher.

Meeting the problem at the source of contamination is, I think, a way to solve the problem and lift that burden from consumers,

Julia Varhavsky, lead study author, University of California, San Francisco

It is not entirely clear why this happens more with foods we buy from outside the home, but the chemicals are ‘migrating from foods that come into contact with them along the industrial food production supply chain,’ said Julia Varhavsky, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF and the study’s lead author.

‘We are learning that contamination of the food supply is more complex of a problem than we thought and there are a lot of opportunities for [phthalates] to come contaminate food,’ she explained, ‘it’s not a simple problem to fix.’

For now, ‘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,’ Varhavsky said.

The toxins are weak endocrine disrupters, meaning that they tamper with hormones.

In particular, they have been linked to infertility and negative effects for the development of the genital area in boys who were exposed to high levels of the chemicals while in the womb.

Phthalates have also been linked to signs of neurodevelopmental issues in exposed children, who tend to have lower test scores.

The exposure levels they found in the study subjects were on par with those that have been linked to these developmental issues.

Overall, Varhavsky says that we should not panic and stop going out to eat altogether, but that ‘eating at home can reduce the exposure to multiple phthalates, but that really places the burden on consumers.

‘Meeting the problem at the source of contamination is, I think, a way to solve the problem and lift that burden from consumers,’ she said.