It is well known that eating often increases the intake of unhealthy sugars and fats. But a new study suggests that there is another reason to eat more often at home: Phthalates
Phthalates are potentially harmful chemicals found in hundreds of consumer goods, including perfumes, hair sprays, shampoos, and food processing and plastics -packaging.
Consumption of these chemicals has been associated with birth defects in boys and behavioral problems and obesity in older children and adults. Exposure to utero may alter the development of the male reproductive tract, resulting in incomplete descent of one or both testes.
Scientists also suspect that the chemicals can disrupt hormones and cause fertility problems. They have linked them to childhood obesity, asthma, neurological problems, cardiovascular problems and even cancer.
"Phthalates are a class of synthetic chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which means they affect hormones in the body," Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, an associate professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Washington and former chair of the Environmental Protection Agency's Advisory Committee on Child Health Protection, which was not involved in the study. "Hormones are essential for normal body functions like reproduction or metabolism."
The study published Wednesday in the Environment International study found that the phthalate levels of participants who had eaten in restaurants, cafeterias and fast food outlets last day were 35% higher than those who reported being in the Grocery store bought food.
Those who dined out were likely to be exposed to chemicals that had come into contact with plastic wrappers, said Ami Zota, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Work Health at George Washington University, and a lead author of the study.
"The main idea is that foods made in restaurants and cafeterias that come into contact with materials that contain phthalates, in part because of some of the food, are made in decentralized locations," Zota said.
"Most phthalates, which are of major health concern, are plasticisers, and are added to soften plastics," she added. "They are added to food packaging, they can be in gloves for food handling, and they can be found in food tubes."
The study relied on data collected between 2005 and 2014 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey every two years by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It involved 10,253 people who were asked about their eating habits over the past 24 hours and who provided urine samples to assess phthalate levels in the body.
The researchers found that about two-thirds of respondents said they go out at least once a day. Those who fed also had a significantly higher level of urinary phthalate metabolite.
This association was consistent across all age groups, genders, and ethnicities, but was strongest among teenagers who went out: they had a 55% higher phthalate level who ate at home
"The connection between phthalate exposure and Food was available in all ages, but the level of association was highest for teens, "said Zota. "Certain foods, especially cheeseburgers and other sandwiches, have also been associated with elevated phthalate levels, but only when purchased from a restaurant."
This is not the first time that phthalates have been linked to food sources. In 2016, Zota led a study that showed a link between phthalate exposure and fast food restaurants. The new study extends this research by showing that the compound persists in eating in other types of facilities, such as seating and cafeterias.
"We first used this method to focus on fast food for some notable associations between the recent fast-food consumption and phthalate exposure," Zota said. "And now we've expanded that to see if the results for fast foods are unique or how they compare to other foods that reflect other types of food processing and manufacturing systems?"
Last year, a report found high concentrations of phthalates in macaroni and cheese mixes, leading to increased regulation of chemicals in food. Although the US Food and Drug Administration oversees phthalates in a range of cosmetics, it does not regulate their presence in food or beverage products.
"Policymakers need to focus on reducing phthalate exposures in food production processes, and food producers need to know about contamination sources and work to reduce them," said Sathyanarayana. "The other option is to either reduce or eliminate phthalates in food production."
The good news is that phthalates remain in the body for only about a day. A change in eating habits and eating more home-cooked meals could, therefore, almost immediately bring health benefits, according to Zota.
"Eating at home can be a win-win situation," Zota said. "Self-cooked meals can be a great way to reduce sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt, and this study suggests they do not have as many harmful phthalates as restaurant meals."
"The other important point is that these chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment, "she added.
" To really reduce the exposure of all these potentially harmful chemicals, we need systemic changes in the production and transportation of our food, and this is going on both in politics and in the marketplace Change requires solutions. "