Cheeseburgers, chicken burritos and other meat products had the highest phthalate/plasticizer content, with much higher DEHT levels detected in burritos than in burgers.
On the upside, cheese pizzas were among the least contaminated foods, while French fries were found to be DEHT-free.
Because not all of these chemicals have been thoroughly studied, the precise harm they may pose to human health is not entirely clear, the team acknowledged.
But Edwards cautioned that until researchers get a better handle on the risk involved, consumers should know that “it is not only [about] processed foods” at fast food chains — any food that’s handled in any restaurant setting can be exposed to such chemicals, she noted.
With that in mind, Edwards said better oversight is needed, adding that she hopes “our work can be used by policymakers to help create stronger regulations to keep phthalates and replacement plasticizers out of our foods.”
Meanwhile, one thing that people can do to limit potential risk is to “eat lower on the food chain.” That, said Edwards, basically means limiting meat intake.
“However, we recognize that this strategy to reduce exposure is not always accessible to everyone,” she added. So, she and her colleagues point to their own prior research, which suggests that home cooking is the safer bet, since people tend not to use problematic plastic gloves, packaging and the like when prepping food in their own kitchen.
That’s a strategy echoed by Lona Sandon, program director of the department of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“Many fast food chains rely on meats, chicken and fish or other foods that are preformed, partially cooked, then frozen, packaged in plastic, and shipped to the restaurant site to be finished at the time of order,” Sandon noted. “This gives plenty of time for these foods to sit wrapped in plastic.”
And even relatively healthy food options are not immune to plastic exposure, she added, noting that “organic or not, the risk persists if the food is stored in plastic that has these chemicals.”