Eating Out Linked with Higher Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Your Blood

Preparing meals at home can reduce your exposure to harmful PFAS chemicals that are commonly found in take-out and fast food packaging, according to a new study by researchers at Silent Spring Institute.

Study overview

Researchers analyzed data from 10,106 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)–a program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that tracks health and nutritional trends in the United States. The participants had answered detailed questions about their diet, recalling what they ate over four different time scales–in the previous 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, and 12 months. The participants had also provided blood samples that had been analyzed for a number of different PFAS chemicals.

Findings overview

The results indicated that people who ate more meals at home had significantly lower levels of PFAS in their bodies than those who ate out. The vast majority (90%) of these meals consisted of food purchased at a grocery store. In contrast, people who consumed more fast food or ate more frequently at restaurants, including pizza places, tended to have higher levels of PFAS in their bodies. This suggests that fast food and food from conventional restaurants is more likely to be contaminated with PFAS, which may be due to greater contact with PFAS-containing food packaging.

Although the study did not directly analyze food packaging or the food itself for PFAS, the findings are consistent with previous research, including an earlier study by Silent Spring that found PFAS chemicals are common in fast food packaging.

Additionally, consistent with previous studies, the researchers also found that people who consumed more microwave popcorn had significantly higher levels of PFAS, most likely the result of the chemicals leaching out of the popcorn bags. Four PFAS chemicals that were detected in the participants’ blood samples and that were associated with eating more popcorn have previously been detected in microwave popcorn bags, the researchers note.

In addition to PFAS, food packaging can contain other chemicals of concern, including hormone-disrupting compounds such as BPA and phthalates.

What are PFAS?

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of chemicals widely used in an array of nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, outdoor apparel, as well as food packaging. Food crops and livestock can also contain PFAS through exposure to contaminated soil and water. PFAS have been linked with numerous health effects including cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. Because the chemicals are ubiquitous and exposures are widespread in the population, scientists are concerned about the health risks.

 

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Journal Reference: Susmann, H.P., L.A. Schaider, K.M. Rodgers, R.A. Rudel. 2019. “Dietary Habits Related to Food Packaging and Population Exposure to PFASs,” Environmental Health Perspectives. DOI: 10.1289/EHP4092


 

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