A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who consume more fast food had higher levels of phthalates, a potentially harmful industrial chemical, in their urine.
Phthalates make plastic more flexible, and are used to make food packaging materials, tubing for dairy products and other items involved in the production of fast food. Two specific types known as DEHP and DiNP can make their way into food during the packaging process and, according to the study's author, can even be introduced to the food by the vinyl gloves that employees wear to prevent food poisoning.
"Other research suggests these chemicals can leach out of plastic food packaging and can contaminate highly processed food," notes a press release about the study from George Washington University.
Some types of phthalates, including DEHP and DiNP, have been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. While more research is required to understand the chemicals' possible impact on humans, phthalates certainly don't sound like an ingredient anyone would want in a Happy Meal.
Researchers at GWU's Milken Institute School of Public Health analyzed data from close to 9,000 participants who answered questions about their diet, including their consumption of fast food. The study participants also provided urinary samples, which the researchers tested for the presence of DEHP and DiNP.
"People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher," said lead author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, in a press statement.
Zota and her team found that this most affected group of people had higher levels of both DiNP and DEHP than those who had not eaten any fast food the day prior.
All that said, it's important to note that experts don't yet know what this could mean for human health. When phthalates enter the body, the body works to convert them into breakdown products that appear in urine. When these breakdown products are detected, it indicates phthalate exposure, but doesn't really tell scientist much else. In other words, the presence of these byproducts in the urine is not necessarily harmful; however, the more byproducts are found, the more phthalates a person has consumed.
Grain- and meat-based fast foods were the biggest contributors of phthalate exposure, the researchers found. Zota said grain items included food items like bread, cake, pizza, burritos, noodles and rice dishes.
While more research is needed to reach any real conclusions regarding the dangers of phthalate exposure, anyone with concerns can take immediate action.
"People concerned about this issue can't go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food," Zota said. "A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates."