March 29 (UPI) -- People who dine out had higher levels of toxic chemicals called phthalates than those who ate home-cooked meals, according to a new study.
Researchers at George Washington University and the University of California at Berkeley found people who eat more fast-food or food prepared at restaurants or cafeterias had phthalate levels almost 35 percent higher than those who said they mostly cooked and ate their own food. The researchers published their findings Thursday in the journal Environment International.
"This study suggests food prepared at home is less likely to contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues," Dr. Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington, said in a press release. "Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognized source of exposure to phthalates for the U.S. population."
Phthalates, which are used to make plastic and vinyl softer and more flexible, are often used in production of take-home boxes, gloves used to handle food and food processing equipment.
The study was the first to compare phthalate exposures in people who reported dining out with those more likely to eat home-cooked meals.
The researchers examined data from 10,253 participants 6 years and older in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2005 and 2014. Researchers asked what they ate and where it came from during the 24 hours before their interview.
About 61 percent of participants said they dined out the previous day.
The researchers then analyzed urine samples from the participants, finding increased toxic levels were significant for all age levels among those who dined out, but were 55 percent higher among teenagers who reported they ate at restaurants more often had 55 percent higher level.
Some foods, cheeseburgers and other sandwiches among among them, carried 30 percent higher phthalate levels if they were purchased at a fast-food outlet, restaurant or cafeteria.
Cafeteria food was also associated with 15 percent higher level in children and 64 percent among adults.
"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," said Dr. Julia Varshavsky, a researcher at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health Varshavsky and postdoctoral scientist at UC San Francisco. "Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply."
In a 2016 study led by Zota, they found that fast food may expose consumers to higher levels of phthalates among 8,877 participants. In that study, which included 8,877 participants, researchers found phthalate levels were 40 percent higher for people consuming more fast food than those who rarely ate it.
"Preparing food at home may represent a win-win for consumers," Zota said. "Home cooked meals can be a good way to reduce sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. And this study suggests it may not have as many harmful phthalates as a restaurant meal."