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Fast-food products contain harmful industrial chemicals, study finds

Experts say phthalates and plasticizers were detected in several fast-food options across the U.S.

Fast-food nuggets and fries
Photo (c) Jonathan Knowles - Getty Images
While several studies have looked at the health risks associated with the nutritional makeup of fast-food items, few studies have explored other ways that fast food can be harmful to consumers’ health.  

A new study conducted by researchers from George Washington University found that many fast-food items -- like burritos, chicken nuggets, and cheeseburgers -- contain traces of phthalates and plastics. These chemicals can pose significant long-term health risks, including damage to the endocrine system. 

“We found phthalates and other plasticizers are widespread in prepared foods available at U.S. fast food chains, a finding that means many consumers are getting a side of potentially unhealthy chemicals along with their meal,” said researcher Lariah Edwards. “Stronger regulations are needed to help keep these harmful chemicals out of the food supply.” 

Chemicals pose a health risk to consumers

For the study, the researchers tested more than 60 different fast-food items and three different types of reusable gloves for potentially harmful chemicals. They detected phthalates and plasticizers in the large majority of the items tested.

The study showed that items containing meat were the most likely to have the highest levels of these kinds of chemicals, with chicken burritos and cheeseburgers topping the list. On the other hand, cheese pizzas had the lowest levels of these chemicals out of all the foods that were tested. 

Overall, 86% of the foods and all of the gloves tested contained a commonly used plasticizer called DEHT. These chemicals are typically used to keep things soft; however, this becomes problematic because the chemicals can seep into the food and are then digested. 

Two phthalates were found in large percentages of the food items; DnBP was detected in more than 80% of the fast-food products, and DEHP was found in 70% of the foods. These chemicals can pose serious risks to consumers’ reproductive processes and cognitive function. 

Low-income consumers may be more at risk

While more work needs to be done to determine more of the health risks linked with these chemicals, the researchers say making homemade meals is one of the best ways to avoid ingesting phthalates and plasticizers. However, they also worry about how consumers in low-income areas may struggle to get access to more natural food options. 

“Disadvantaged neighborhoods often have plenty of fast food outlets, but limited access to healthier foods like fruits and vegetables,” said researcher Ami Zota. “Additional research needs to be done to find out whether people living in such food deserts are at higher risk of exposure to these harmful chemicals.” 

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