Last updated March 29, 2018 at 1:57 pm
Restaurant diners are exposed to chemicals linked to fertility problems.
Poor service, exorbitant prices and rude staff are all potential hazards from eating at a restaurant or café, but new research adds another, rather more concerning danger: exposure to a class of hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates.
The research led by public health expert Julia Varshavsky from the University of California, Berkeley, reveals that people who eat at least one meal purchased from a restaurant, café or fast food outlet within a given 24-hour period have urine-test phthalate 35% higher than people who ate at home using food purchased from a grocery store.
The study used 10,253 participants recruited from data contained within the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Each volunteer was asked to recall their food choices for the previous day, and then provide a urine sample.
The samples were examined for phthalate breakdown products. The class of chemicals is widely used in food packaging and food processing. It has twice been the subject of red flags raised by the National Academies of Sciences (in 2008 and 2017), with the most recent warning that the chemicals are known to present reproductive hazards in humans.
In line with the current guidelines, which recognise that phthalates vary in toxicity, Varshavsky and her colleagues measured cumulative exposure rather than focussing only on specific compounds.
“This study suggests food prepared at home is less likely to contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues,” says co-author Ami Zota.
“Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognised source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.”
Although the study found increased levels of phthalates across the board among people who had dined out, there were some recognisable hotspots and at-risk groups.
Adolescents with a taste for fast food had levels 55% higher than at-home diners. And consumption of outlet-prepared cheeseburgers and sandwiches was also linked to increased phthalates. There was no association between increased levels and cheeseburgers or sandwiches prepared at home.
The study, published in the journal Environment International adds further detail to earlier work completed by Varshavsky’s team that found a clear link between phthalate exposure and fast food. That work found that people who consumed junk food often had phthalate levels 40% higher than people who never, or rarely, ate the stuff.
The new study is the first time similar investigations have been carried out on food consumed in cafes and restaurants outside the fast food sector.
All up, say the researchers, there are strong arguments in favour of reducing nights out on the town and turning instead to the joys of one’s own kitchen.
“Preparing food at home may represent a win-win for consumers,” says Zota. “Home cooked meals can be a good way to reduce sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. And this study suggests it may not have as many harmful phthalates as a restaurant meal.”