The dark side of America's love affair with cheap-and-cheerful processed foods is the presence of ingredients that do not appear anywhere in nature.
No matter how delicious and addictive most fast food is, deep down inside we all know that it's full of chemicals with names that cannot be spelled by laypeople. Some of these chemicals are delicious, while others probably aren't even fit for human consumption. As usual, pesky food scientists are eager to uncover what's going on beneath the sesame bun—and it's not good.
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In a recent study titled Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the US Population, researchers found a direct link between consumption of fast food and a group of chemicals called phthalates, also referred to as plasticizers.
Phthalates (pronounced THA-lates) are widely used in industrial production of shower curtains, medical bags and tubes, children's toys, soap, and nail polish. Yummm. They have also been associated with health issues like physical abnormalities, fertility problems, certain forms of cancer, and stunted penile development.
After analyzing the urine samples of almost 9,000 participants over the course of seven years, the authors quantified subjects' self-reported fast food consumption over the previous 24 hours Not surprisingly, those with a high fast food intake had significantly higher levels of phthalates in their bodies.
While phthalates aren't intentionally pumped into ingredients—like Subway's infamous "yoga mat" additive—scientists suspect that plasticizers sneak their way into the food supply via the industrial machinery used to make processed foods, as well as through gloves used by factory workers.
Ami R. Zota, lead author of the study, told Bloomberg that because of how little research is done into phthalates—hers is the first study to establish a link with fast food—it remains ubiquitous and largely unregulated.
"Right now there are few choices for individuals who are interested in reducing their exposure, and there's also not very much regulation," she said, adding that the only sure way to minimize eating phthalates is to stick to fresh and, if possible, organic fruits and vegetables. "Try to eat low on the food chain."