Does That Burger Come With a Side of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals?

Last Update: April 5, 2023

It’s pretty clear by now that a steady diet of double cheeseburgers and chili fries isn’t exactly good for your health.

Scientists and nutritionists know all too well that the high-fat, high-sugar options found on extra-value menus have contributed to the rapid rise in obesity, heart disease, and even some cancers, but we may now be able to add chemical exposure to the list of problems with fast food. And we’re not even talking about the higher-than-normal levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, which are commonly found in certain plastics and packaging. Analyzing data collected from nearly 9,000 Americans between 2003 and 2010 for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers from George Washington University found that those who had consumed fast food in the previous 24 hours had levels of phthalates at least 25 percent higher than respondents who had not consumed fast food.

The researchers also looked for elevated levels of bisphenol A, or BPA—most notably found in aluminum can liners and some plastic water bottles—but could not find a correlation.

The elevated levels of phthalates, however, are troubling enough. These findings suggest that certain chemicals may leach into our meals through packaging, machinery, or even latex gloves worn by employees during food preparation at quick-service restaurants. Phthalates have been linked to a range of adverse effects including impacts on reproductivebehavioral, and respiratory health.

“This is the largest study of its kind to examine if a certain type of food preparation is associated with levels of these chemicals in the body,” the study’s lead author Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, told Civil Eats.

“There’s a myriad of sources [for phthalates],” she added. “It’s most likely the more processed the food, the more opportunities [for phthalate exposure.]”

The American Public Health Association has recommended that Americans reduce their exposure to chemicals that disrupt our hormone function, such as phthalates. Congress even acknowledged the potential danger of these chemicals in its Food Quality Protection Act and amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996. Besides food packaging, other sources of endocrine disrupting chemicals include lawn, garden, and agricultural pesticides.

Public health researchers suggest the George Washington University analysis is yet another troubling indictment of how our industrial, convenience-based food system may be making us sick.

“It speaks to the general concern we’ve long had about food regulations and permissible amounts of chemicals as food additives,” New York University School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine Leo Trasande, who did not participate in the study but has researched phthalates in food, told Civil Eats. It also “adds further evidence for eating fresh food and avoided pre-processed and packaged food.”

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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