Is There Plastic In Your Takeout? New Study Provides Worrying New Evidence

By Sophia Harris
|
November 1, 2021
A blurred fast food restaurant

It’s no secret that fast food isn’t amazing for you. Ultra-processed, high in saturated fat, and filled with empty carbs, sugar, and low-quality oils, we all know that any meal you can get at a drive-thru is probably not going to be exactly healthy. But to be honest, we always figured that picking one up on rare occasions was no big deal — until now. 

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A new, first-of-its-kind study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology is reporting that many popular fast food items in the United States contain chemicals linked to serious long-term health problems. Researchers at George Washington University purchased fast food from many different popular outlets in the U.S. and found these samples contained harmful chemicals — including phthalates, which are used to make plastic. 

The participating research team tested the 64 selected food items for 11 types of phthalates and plasticizers, and here’s what they found: 

  • 81% of the food samples contained a phthalate and 70% contained DEHP. Both of these chemicals have been linked to fertility problems and an increased risk for learning, attention, and behavior disorders. 
  • Foods containing meat, like cheeseburgers and chicken burritos, contained higher levels of the chemicals. 
  • Of all the fast food items, cheese pizza had the lowest level of chemicals tested. 

So what are phthalates and plasticizers anyways? Do they belong in food? 

In a nutshell, these chemicals are used to make plastics soft, and they can leak from plastic into food. Sources can include food-handling gloves, industrial tubing, food conveyor belts, and plastic packaging used to wrap fast food meals. 

Previous research done by this team indicates that people who cook at home more often have lower levels of these chemicals in their bodies. This is likely because their food isn’t touched by plastic gloves, wrapping paper, or assembly lines.  

Phthalates most definitely do not belong in food. Recent studies have linked them with worrying health conditions, including infertility, hormone imbalances, insulin resistance, obesity, type II diabetes, and breast cancer. Phthalates are considered to be even higher-risk for children, especially under the age of five. 

Researchers conducting the fast food study say that their findings indicate the need for better scrutiny and regulation of the chemicals used to make food. Some phthalates are banned or restricted, but replacement plasticizers used instead can be just as harmful. 

What can I do to protect myself? 

The more we learn about phthalates and plasticizers, the less we want to come in contact with them. Here are some easy ways to avoid food contamination with these chemicals: 

  1. Cook at home: Since you have complete control of your food when you cook at home, this is the easiest and safest option to avoid phthalates. Avoid using plastic food prep gloves, and be sure to store leftovers in glass or foil instead of plastic containers. 
  2. Avoid plastic whenever possible: Ask for cardboard containers for your delivery meals, and don’t order items that come in plastic wrapping. When takeout seems inevitable, consider ordering something like pizza that comes in cardboard or paper wrapping.   
  3. Be choosy when you do eat out: When selecting a restaurant, whether for takeout or dine-in meals, consider the quality and preparation of the food. Larger chains may tend to include items that have been more processed and shipped from other locations (more exposure to assembly lines and gloves), while smaller, local restaurants are more likely to get their meat locally and use fresh ingredients. In general, there’s less risk of food contamination with phthalates if it’s been minimally processed and shipped. 

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