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What’s in That Fast Food?

What’s in That Fast Food?

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Hormone-disrupting chemicals are abundant in American fast food

New research shows that American fast food contains a significant quantity of endocrine-disrupting chemicals – toxins that throw our hormones out-of-whack. That means burgers, burritos, and chicken nuggets could be in part to blame for America’s health crisis.

In this article we’ll take a closer look at the research – but first, let’s better understand endocrine disruptors.


What are endocrine disruptors?

Some types of chemicals can wreak havoc on our hormones. Specifically known as endocrine disruptors, these chemicals can interfere with normal hormone signaling and even mimic the effects of hormones (like estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormone), thus pushing our bodies out of balance.[1]

Endocrine disruptors can be found in both natural and man-made products, including everyday household items. From plastic bottles to the linings of food cans, cosmetics, detergents, pesticides, the flame retardants used on children’s pajamas, and even the toys that children play with (and put in their mouths), endocrine disruptors play a significant role in causing and perpetuating disease.

Specifically, endocrine disrupting chemicals have been linked with:[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15]

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Decreased immunity
  • Allergies
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Metabolic diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes
  • Puberty trouble, like premature breast development in girls and abnormal breast growth in boys
  • Thyroid disease
  • Infertility, miscarriage, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and low sperm count
  • Cancer, specifically breast and prostate cancer
  • Epigenetic changes that affect one’s children and even grandchildren. Bisphenol A (BPA), a type of endocrine disruptor, can even be found in the breastmilk of a mother with high levels of exposure.[16]
  • Other health problems and diseases


Measuring the chemicals in fast food

In a study published in the fall of 2021,[17] researchers measured the concentrations of chemicals found in American fast food. Prior research had shown that people who consume fast food tend to have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies,[18],[19],[20] but the fall 2021 study was the first to directly measure the chemicals found in food items from popular fast food chain restaurants.

Foods containing meat were found to contain higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

The researchers gathered cheese pizza, hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, and other foods, along with three pairs of clean, unused gloves from six different fast food restaurants in San Antonio, Texas. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, they then measured the concentrations of 11 different chemicals in the samples. Of the 11 chemicals screened for, eight were phthalates (synthetic chemicals used to make plastics more durable) and three were non-phthalate plasticizers.

Ten out of the eleven chemicals were detected in the fast food samples: 81% of the food contained di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP); 70% contained di(2-ethylhexyl phthalate) (DEHP); and 86% contained the replacement plasticizer di(2-ethylhexyl terephthalate) (DEHT).

Foods containing meat were found to contain higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Interestingly, cheese pizza contained the lowest levels of most of the 11 chemicals.

There isn’t much research yet available on the risk of consuming the newer, non-phthalate plasticizer DEHT. One of the study authors explains, “We’re being exposed before we understand what it’s doing to our health. It’s almost like we’re setting ourselves up for a big experiment.”[21] DEHT was detected in 86% of the foods analyzed, and the concentrations were significantly higher in burritos than in hamburgers.

We’re being exposed before we understand what it’s doing to our health.

It’s worth mentioning that the primary source of phthalate exposure in humans is through food,[22] and this latest study confirms that endocrine disruptors are particularly abundant in fast food.


Food quality disparities

These study findings are particularly chilling from a health equity perspective. Many Americans live in “food deserts” – neighborhoods where fast food restaurants and convenience stores are much easier to access than supermarkets or farmer’s markets. It has been noted that predominantly Black neighborhoods – even high-income Black neighborhoods – have a higher density of fast food restaurants than predominantly White areas, and that Black people tend to consume more fast food than Whites.[23],[24],[25] The chemical contamination of fast food is therefore likely to disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized communities.

Black people tend to consume more fast food than Whites.

Hopefully, studies like this one will incite tighter regulations on the chemical and food industries, inform people’s voting habits, and empower consumers to make healthier choices when deciding where – and what – to eat.



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