Food and Chemicals: An Unwanted Phthalate Partnership

Hand taking takeout meal out of refrigerator

Restaurant meals have more calories, salt, and fat than meals consumed at home.1 Additionally, eating out has been associated with an increased risk of obesity and hypertension.2

The Study

A recently published study found that there is even more reason for concern when it comes to food prepared away from home.3 Indeed, in an analysis of participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES), dining out was associated with a higher exposure to phthalate, an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC).3 Phthalates, also called plasticizers, are found in several products, including food packaging and personal care products.4 By measuring urinary phthalate metabolites, authors were able to estimate individuals’ cumulative phthalate exposure.

The Results

Daily phthalate intake was found to be higher amongst participants who reported dining out the day prior when compared to those who ate at home (for example, 55% higher metabolite concentration in adolescents who reported eating out).3 Eating in fast food restaurants, full-service restaurants, or school cafeterias was found to be associated with an increased phthalate exposure, most likely because these foods are subjected to additional processing and packaging. When individual foods were analyzed, burgers and sandwiches consumed away from home were linked with the highest phthalate consumption, while abiding by dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption was linked with lower phthalate levels.3

Phthalate exposure has been associated with several diseases; first, because of its endocrine altering properties, phthalates have been linked with decreased sperm motility and concentration in males.5,6 Second, in a previous NHANES analysis, women with higher levels of phthalates had a higher risk of developing diabetes with an odds ratio of 1.96 (95% CI: 1.11-3.47).7 Finally, EDC, including phthalates, were found to play a role in the progression of obesity.8


In conclusion, while eating at home is recommended to curb the extra calories and unwanted fat and sugar, it is also important to address exposure to known detrimental environmental chemicals, especially those linked with adverse health outcomes. Partnering with the food industry to find safer processing and packaging practices would help decrease the consumption of EDCs, including phthalates.