Dining out frequently is known to increase one’s intake of unhealthy sugars and fats. But a new study suggests that there’s another reason to eat at home more often: phthalates.
Phthalates are potentially harmful chemicals found in hundreds of consumer products, including perfumes, hair sprays, shampoos and the plastics used in food processing and packaging.
Consumption of these chemicals has been linked to birth defects in young boys as well as behavioral problems and obesity in older children and adults. Exposure in utero can alter the development of the male reproductive tract, resulting in incomplete descent of one or both testicles.
Scientists also suspect that the chemicals can disrupt hormones and may cause fertility problems. They’ve connected them to childhood obesity, asthma, neurological problems, cardiovascular issues and even cancer.
“Phthalates are a class of synthetic chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect hormones in the body,” said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, an associate professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington and past chairwoman of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, who was not involved in the study. “Hormones are essential for normal body functions such as reproduction or metabolism.”
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environment International, found that the phthalate levels of participants who had eaten at restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets in the previous day were 35% higher than those who reported eating food purchased at the grocery store.
Those who dined out were probably exposed to the chemicals via foods that had been in contact with plastic packaging, said Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and a leading author on the study.
“The main idea is that food that is made in restaurants and cafeterias may be coming into contact with materials containing phthalates in part because some portion of the food is made in decentralized locations,” Zota said.
“Most of the phthalates that are of most concern from a health perspective are plasticizers; they’re added to make plastics soft,” she added. “They’re added to food packaging, they can be in food handling gloves, and they can be found in food tubing.”
The study relied on data collected between 2005 and 2014 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, administered every two years by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It included 10,253 people who were asked about their dining habits over the past 24 hours and who provided urine samples to evaluate phthalate levels in the body.
The researchers found that about two-thirds of respondents reported dining out at least once the previous day. Those who dined out also had significantly greater levels of phthalate metabolites in their urine.
This association was consistent across all ages, genders and ethnicities, but it was strongest among teenagers who ate out: They had phthalate levels 55% higher than those who ate at home.