Dining out at restaurants raises your risk of being exposed to ‘gender-bending’ chemicals, a study has found.
It showed levels of phthalates are a third higher in those who eat out for dinner, compared with those who prepare their own meals.
These chemicals, found in food packaging and plastic gloves used by kitchen staff, are linked to asthma and pregnancy complications and are believed to disrupt hormones, potentially causing infertility to boys in the womb.
Previous studies have suggested they can hinder male sexual development, while boys exposed to them were less likely to play with traditionally male toys.
The study of more than 10,000 people found those who had eaten out in the previous 24 hours had levels of phthalates a third higher than in those who ate at home, rising to 55 % for teenagers.
Restaurant meals tend to be high in fat and oils, which attract more of the chemicals than simpler foods cooked at home.
Restaurants are also more likely to use food processing equipment and kitchen gloves, and send diners home with takeaway boxes. All of these items contain phthalates. The study’s co-author Dr Ami Zota, from George Washington University in the US, said: ‘Most people enjoy dining out, but it is important to be aware it will increase your phthalate exposure. You can’t go wrong with home-cooked meals to reduce sugar and unhealthy fats in your diet, and potentially these manmade chemicals as well.
‘This is a problem on a global level, with studies showing the same results in Europe.’
A previous small study at the University of Rochester in New York found pre-school boys whose mothers were exposed to phthalates in pregnancy were less likely to play typically male games, such as fighting or playing with trucks. Another study by the same university said exposure in the womb may suppress male sexual development.
The new research is the first to compare people eating out and at home for exposure to phthalates. Participants were asked where they had eaten in the previous 24 hours, including restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food premises. Phthalates were measured in urine samples. The results show a 35 per cent higher phthalate level in those eating away from home, rising to 55 % for teenagers.
For restaurants alone, excluding fast-food establishments and cafeterias, adults had 41 % higher levels of the chemicals than if they had eaten at home. This rose to 46 % for young children, who, like teenagers, have higher levels of the harmful chemicals because of their smaller body size.
Phthalates are thought to interfere with hormones key to our growth, development and overall health. They are attracted to fat, so foods high in fat and oils contain higher levels.
Food bought from the supermarket also contains phthalates, but experts suggest restaurants may use ingredients that go through more suppliers and processing, so are more exposed to the chemicals from packaging and equipment.
The study’s lead author, Dr Julia Varshavsky, from the University of California, Berkeley, said: ‘Pregnant women, children and teens are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals, so it’s important to find ways to limit their exposures.
‘Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.’ The research is published in the journal Environment International.