Chemicals That Disrupt Hormones Found In US Fast Foods

What are Phthalates? 

Ortho-phthalates (also referred to as phthalates) are a class of multi-functional, high production volume chemicals used widely in commerce. High molecular weight phthalates like di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP) are commonly used as plasticizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials such as food packaging and food contact materials.

In the past twenty years, the European Union and U.S. have restricted the use of several ortho-phthalates, including DEHP and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP), in commercial products.

Their exposure in humans is widespread since they easily migrate out of products. Biomarkers of phthalate exposures are detected in greater than 98% of the US population. This exposure is concerning since certain ortho-phthalates are established endocrine disruptors linked to a host of adverse reproductive and metabolic outcomes across the life course. 

What Effect Do They Have in the Body? 

Phthalates, such as di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), are endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine disruptors can interfere with the function of hormones by mimicking or blocking their effects or disrupting the production of hormones and their receptors. Phthalates such as DnBP and DEHP can interfere with the activity of thyroid hormones and steroid hormones, including estrogen and testosterone.

Consequently, exposure to these phthalates plays a role in developmental, reproductive, and metabolic disorders. For instance, scientists associate exposure to phthalates with reduced sperm count, lower fertility in both males and females, obesity, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Fast-food items are highly processed, involving the use of prepackaged food items and several steps of preparation. Consistent with the increased likelihood of exposure to food contact materials, research links consumption of fast food with higher levels of phthalates in urinary samples.

Research Study

A new study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology evaluated and quantified the exposure and concentrations of eight ortho-phthalates and three replacement plasticizers in food items commonly ordered from popular fast food restaurants in the US. 

The study reported detectable levels of both phthalates and the three replacement plasticizers, di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA), 1,2-cyclohexane dicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester (DINCH), and dioctyl terephthalate (DEHT) in popular food items, as well as in gloves used in food preparation from major US fast-food restaurants.

The researchers also assessed the potential toxicity of the replacement plasticizers using laboratory assay data generated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database. Their analysis revealed that exposure to these replacement plasticizers could potentially lead to adverse health effects. 

They collected a total of 64 food samples from 2 or 3 separate locations of each of the 6 fast-food chains, located in San Antonio. They also included unused gloves. The fast-food chains included were McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Chipotle. They quantified plasticizer levels in hamburgers, chicken burritos, french fries, chicken nuggets and cheese pizzas.

Overall, the researchers found detectable levels of plasticizers in all 64 food samples. The researchers found detectable levels of DnBP and DEHP in 81% and 70% of the food samples, respectively. DEHT was detected in 86% of all food samples, whereas DEHA was present in 41% of the fast-food items.

Their results show that known endocrine disruptors are present in detectable levels in these fast-food items from leading restaurants. 

The researchers said that exposure to phthalates in the general US population is widespread and there are very few regulations in place to protect the consumers. They suspect that diet is a major source of exposure to these substances and that stronger regulations are needed to help keep substances out of our foods. 


Deep Shukla (2021, Nov 2). Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in popular US fast foods. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: 

Edwards, L., McCray, N.L., VanNoy, B.N. et al. Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast food chains: a preliminary analysis. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol (2021).

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