Researchers Find Common Endocrine Disruptor in Variety of Fast Foods, Study Says

Fast food burger

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Key Takeaways

  • A team of researchers collected samples of fast food from several restaurants and found many contained phthalates.
  • This is a group of chemicals often used to make plastics more durable, but are also found in many personal-care products.
  • Recently, phthalates have been criticized for their potential role in causing disruption in the endocrine system, as well as potential fertility and pregnancy issues.

A team of researchers collected samples of fast food from six restaurants and found many contained phthalates, a group of chemicals that have been previously associated with endocrine system disruption as well as potential pregnancy and fertility difficulties.

Published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, the research details 64 food items used as test samples, as well as plastic gloves used by employees at the restaurants. After testing the items, researchers found a type of phthalate called DnBP in 81% of the samples and another type, DEHP, in 70% of the items. Foods with the highest concentration were meat-based, such as burritos and hamburgers.

Study Findings

Phthalates, or phthalate esters, are chemicals primarily used to make plastics more durable, but they do have other uses as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these chemicals are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, lubricating oils, and personal-care products like shampoos and soap.

Although researchers did not investigate how these chemicals were getting into the food, they suggested it may be residue from the plastic gloves used by cooks, and possibly from plastic packaging as well such as wrappers.

Ami Zota, ScD

Individuals who frequently consume fast food meals are especially vulnerable to exposure.

— Ami Zota, ScD

Another aspect of the research was testing for non-phthalate chemicals used as replacements, and those were also found in a significant number of samples, according to study co-author Ami Zota, ScD, MS at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. But even though replacements were used, the phthalates are still at high levels, she says.

"Our preliminary findings suggest ortho-phthalates remain ubiquitous, and replacement plasticizers may be abundant in fast food meals," she notes. "Diet is the primary exposure for these chemicals, and food items sold by fast-food chains are heavily processed, packaged, and handled. Therefore, individuals who frequently consume fast food meals are especially vulnerable to exposure."

Problem with Phthalates

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has no threshold on the number of phthalates in food, and the amounts found in the recent research are below the health-protective thresholds at the Environmental Protection Agency.

That said, these chemicals have been linked to health problems in previous research, particularly related to the endocrine system. For example, a 2017 study in Toxicology Reports looking at single-serve coffee products noted that high levels of phthalates in these items could adversely affect hormonal function, including fertility and prenatal development. Those researchers added that infants can be affected due to maternal exposure to these endocrine disruptors.

Another issue, according to Zota, is health equity concerns. Predominantly Black areas tend to have higher densities of fast food, for instance, which means they would be at higher exposure risk, she states.

Not Just in Food

Although getting phthalates through fast-food wrappers and plastic gloves is one potential mode of delivery, these chemicals are also in a wide range of personal care products, according to Lily Adelzadeh, MD, a San Francisco-based dermatologist at Berman Skin Institute. This is especially true when it comes to fragrances in these items, she says.

Lily Adelzadeh, MD

It's a good idea to stay away from any products with artificial fragrances because they are the prime culprit if you’re having a bad reaction such as rashes, dry skin, and itching.

— Lily Adelzadeh, MD

"Fragrance smells nice in skincare products,” she notes. “However, I think it’s a good idea to stay away from any products with artificial fragrances because they are the prime culprit if you’re having a bad reaction such as rashes, dry skin, and itching, as well as other reactions like headaches.”

The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, suggests that in addition to avoiding products with "fragrance" in their ingredients, other steps to minimize phthalate exposure include:

  • Avoiding nail polish with dibutyl phthalate or DBP in the ingredients
  • Not buying vinyl toys or other vinyl products like shower curtains
  • Avoiding air fresheners
  • Buying non-toxic paint

Because they are in so many products, it may be impossible to avoid phthalates completely, but limiting options like fast food and heavily scented personal care products could be helpful for cutting down your exposure.

What This Means For You

A recent study found high levels of phthalates in fast food, likely due to wrappers and plastic gloves worn by cooks. Because these chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, limiting exposure is helpful.



7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Why phthalates should be restricted or banned for consumer products.

  2. Edwards L, McCray NL, VanNoy BN, et al.  Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast-food chains: A preliminary analysis. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. Published online October 27, 2021. doi:10.1038/s41370-021-00392-8

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phthalates factsheet.

  4. Environmental Protection Agency. Phthalates.

  5. De Toni L, Tisato F, Seraglia R, et al. Phthalates and heavy metals as endocrine disruptors in food: A study on pre-packed coffee productsToxicology Reports. 2017;4:234-239. doi:10.1016/j.toxrep.2017.05.004

  6. Kwate NOA, Yau CY, Loh JM, Williams D. Inequality in obesigenic environments: Fast food density in New York CityHealth & Place. 2009;15(1):364-373. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.07.003 Epub 2008 Jul 16. PMID:18722151 

  7. Environmental Working Group. Cheatsheet—phthalates.

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.