Whipping up a home-cooked meal can be delicious, nutritious and fun. Oh, and there's another perk as well: It probably won't be full of hormone-disrupting chemicals.
A new study from researchers at George Washington University and the University of California at Berkeley found that people who said they dined out more often had higher levels of toxic chemicals called phthalates.
A lot more. People who reported eating more restaurant, fast-food or cafeteria-prepared food had phthalate levels almost 35 percent higher than those who said they mostly cooked and ate their own food, the study found.
"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," wrote senior author Ami Zota in a news 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 are a group of chemicals that are used in many products. They are used to make plastic and vinyl softer and more flexible. You can find them in cosmetics and personal care products such as perfume, soap and shampoo, as well as in plastic bags, building materials, toys, shower curtains, plastic wrap, water bottles and food packaging.
The scientists say it's likely that phthalates are 'leaching' from plastic containers, gloves, take-home boxes and other equipment into the food.
While government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have been skeptical about whether phthalates are truly harmful, there is growing evidence that at least some forms of them could be more dangerous than others - especially to young people.
For the study, the researchers looked at nearly 10 years of data from a national study of more than 10,000 people. They charted the relationship between where people remembered they ate the previous day and the phthalate levels of a urine sample.
They found that most people reported dining out the previous day, and the association between dining out and high phthalate levels was strongest for teenagers, and even stronger if they mostly reported eating fast food.
Those results backed up a previous study from the same author, which found 40 percent higher phthalate levels in people who ate lots of fast food, fries and burgers.
"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," Julia Varshavsky, of the University of California, San Francisco, said in a news release. "Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply."
One solution in the meantime? Just try to eat at home more often, the scientists say.
"Preparing food at home may represent a win-win for consumers," Zota wrote. "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."
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