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Your Breakfast Muffin Could Be Lowering Your Sperm Count

Public health researchers are calling to an end to a ubiquitous food additive that they say has the potential to majorly mess with human fertility.
Photo via Flickr user bchai

Trail mix, corn muffins, and cinnamon rolls: tasty snacks, all of them, and each with the potential to majorly mess with your fertility.

That's what some scientists say, at least. Yesterday, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit public health organization, released a petition calling for an end to the use of propyl paraben, a common food additive that's found in a host of name-brand edibles ranging from corn tortillas to strawberry-rhubarb pies. The additive is used to prevent microbial growth, but although it's deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration, some scientists remain concerned that the preservative is harmful to humans and might contribute to fertility issues in both men and women.

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"Despite mounting evidence that propyl paraben disrupts the endocrine system, the FDA has failed to take action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety," an EWG press release reads. The petition calls on manufacturers such as Entenmann's and Sara Lee to remove the additive from its snack foods.

Propyl paraben is a natural substance that's found in many plants and some insects, but is manufactured by the food industry to prevent food spoilage. It's part of a group of additives that are "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) by the FDA; however, these additives have long been subject to controversy. From artificial sweeteners to oh-so-delicious MSG, these ingredients have been linked to a host of health complications.

In the case of propyl paraben, EWG isolated two studies that point to the additive's effects on fertility. In 2002, researchers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health found that propyl paraben decreased sperm counts in rats that ate foods containing commensurate concentrations of the additive that the FDA has deemed safe for human consumption. And in 2013, a Harvard School of Public Health study associated ingestion of propyl paraben with diminished fertility in women.

According to researchers at EWG, the additive also messes with the proper function of the endocrine system, which is responsible for maintaining healthy sleep, mood, and reproductive functions.

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As Dr. Johanna Congleton, the author of the EWG report, pointed out when reached by phone earlier today, this is another case of the US lagging behind the European Union when it comes to food safety: in 2006, EU regulators removed propyl paraben from their list of food additives approved for use.

"We are wondering, if it's no longer permitted for use in the EU, why is it approved for use here?" she said.

Congelton added that while parabens have been used in many cosmetics in the past, companies like Revlon and Johnson & Johnson are increasingly eliminating them from their product lines.

"If this is increasingly being dropped from the things we put on our skin, then why hasn't it completely disappeared from the things that we eat?" she asked.

So, boys and girls, it could be time to toss out all those packaged cookies and cakes that are currently lining your pantry. Unless, of course, you're looking for an alternative (and ill-advised) method of birth control.