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Chemicals in Fast Food

In case we needed another reason to eat less fast food.

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Graphic of someone rejecting fast food to represent chemicals in fast food

It seems a lot of Americans still have an appetite for burger combos. According to the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, roughly 36.5% of adults consume fast food on a typical day, accounting for 13.8% of daily calories (about 309 calories each day). This lofty intake does not just expose people to high amounts of saturated fat, sodium and sugar, but also to potentially harmful chemicals in fast food.

An investigation in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health discovered that 70%–81% of the tested 64 fast-food samples from various fast-food chains in the U.S. had traces of phthalates, compounds that may disrupt hormone patterns in adults and hinder children’s neurodevelopment. Phthalates leach into food from the food packaging they are present in.

The findings also revealed that chicken burritos, cheeseburgers and other meat products had the most amount of phthalate, compared with cheese pizzas or French fries, so it’s something about the meat that increases the leaching from packaging.

Finally, 86% of food items contained another plasticizer known as DEHT that was invented to replace phthalates, though research hasn’t established yet whether this is any safer. The study also raises the concern that certain racial/minority groups may be disproportionately affected by these chemicals in fast food. Of course, it remains to be determined how much fast food you would need to eat to soak up chemical levels that would pose a health risk, but this research is another reason why home cooking should be more appetizing.

See also: Fast Food Nation


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Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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