Fast and Dangerous: Harmful Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Discovered in Fast Food

New scientific research has revealed that chicken nuggets, burritos and other popular items consumers buy from fast food outlets in the United States contain dangerous endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are linked to a long list of serious health problems.  More specifically, scientists found 10 of 11 potentially harmful chemicals in fast food samples used in the study, including phthalates*, a group of chemicals that are used to make plastics soft and are known to disrupt the endocrine system. Previous studies have found that consumers who frequently eat ultra-processed and fast food have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies**. The research team also found other plasticizers, chemicals that are emerging as replacements to phthalates.

“We found phthalates and other plasticizers are widespread in prepared foods available at U.S. fast food chains, a finding that means many consumers are getting a side of potentially unhealthy chemicals along with their meal. Stronger regulations are needed to help keep these harmful chemicals out of the food supply.”

-Dr. Lariah Edwards, lead author of the study and postdoctoral scientist, George Washington University

Study Findings Overview

Researchers purchased 64 fast food items from different restaurants and asked for three pairs of unused food handling gloves. The team tested food items and the gloves for 11 kinds of phthalates and plasticizers, finding that:

  • 81% of the food samples studied contained a phthalate called DnBP and 70% contained DEHP. Both these chemicals have been linked in numerous studies to fertility and reproductive problems in humans. These phthalates can also increase risk for learning, attention, and behavioral disorders in childhood.
  • 86% of the foods contained the replacement plasticizer known as DEHT, a chemical that needs further study to determine its impact on human health.
  • Foods containing meats, such as cheeseburgers and chicken burritos, had higher levels of the chemicals studied.
  • Chicken burritos and cheeseburgers had the highest levels of DEHT. The researchers noted that food handling gloves collected from the same restaurants also contained this chemical.
  • Cheese pizzas had the lowest levels of most chemicals tested.

*Phthalates and replacement plasticizers are chemicals used to make plastics soft and can migrate out of plastics into the food, which is ingested. Some sources of plastics include food handling gloves, industrial tubing, food conveyor belts and the outer packaging used to wrap fast food meals available in restaurants.


**Dr. Ami Zota, a professor of environmental and occupational health, George Washington University, looked at fast food consumption in a national survey and found people who reported eating more fast foods had higher levels of phthalates.

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→ To learn more about the adverse health effects of phthalates–and where they are hiding in your food and products–simply visit our Blog page, scroll to the bottom of any article until you reach the SEARCH BOX, and put the word “phthalate” into the search box.

Journal Reference:  Lariah Edwards, Nathan L. McCray, Brianna N. VanNoy, Alice Yau, Ruth J. Geller, Gary Adamkiewicz, Ami R. Zota. Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast food chains: a preliminary analysis. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41370-021-00392-8