Recent research has raised alarms for pregnant women and their fetuses, pointing to a silent threat that may be lurking in the ultraprocessed foods we consume. A study published in the journal Environmental International warns of chemicals known as phthalates transferring from food packaging and handling materials into our food, which can induce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
The study delved into data from 1,031 pregnant individuals in Memphis, Tenn., discovering a link between the ingestion of ultraprocessed foods and heightened levels of a particularly harmful phthalate, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). These findings were based on urine samples collected during the second trimester, which showed increased DEHP in those consuming a diet rich in ultraprocessed foods.
But what exactly qualifies as ultraprocessed? According to researchers, these are foods that have been significantly altered from their original form with a host of added chemicals and preservatives. Everyday items such as packaged cake mixes, french fries, hamburger buns, and soft drinks fall into this category.
Surprisingly, it’s not just the food itself that poses a risk; the study points out that both frozen and fresh ingredients used in fast food may become contaminated with phthalates. Sources of this contamination range from the gloves food handlers wear to the equipment utilized for storage, preparation, and serving.
Moreover, this health concern does not affect all communities equally. The research highlights socioeconomic disparities, indicating that financial challenges and limited access to fresh foods can lead to increased vulnerability to phthalate exposure among pregnant women in certain areas.
Researchers are calling for action on two fronts: legislative measures to regulate and reduce potential sources of phthalate contamination, and a shift in dietary habits for pregnant women. They recommend minimizing intake of ultraprocessed foods in favor of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Additionally, they suggest that when shopping, individuals should look for food labels with ingredients that are clear and easy to understand.