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Fast Foods & Phthalate Risks of Preterm Birth

Pregnancy Alert: Fast Foods & Phthalate Risks of Preterm Birth

Ultra-processed foods and fast foods contain ‘phthalates’, a group of chemicals linked to plastics, which have the potential to leach into food from packaging and plastic gloves worn by food handlers. When these chemicals are ingested during pregnancy, they can enter the bloodstream, leading to oxidative stress and triggering an inflammatory response in the fetus, resulting in preterm birth and mental health issues for the child, post-birth.
These findings were revealed by a study published in the journal Environmental International (1 Trusted Source
Ultra-processed and fast food consumption, exposure to phthalates during pregnancy, and socioeconomic disparities in phthalate exposures

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Phthalate Dangers in Packaged Foods

This is the first study in pregnant women to show that diets higher in ultra-processed foods are linked to greater phthalate exposures, the authors wrote. Previous literature has indicated that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy can increase the risk of low birth weight, preterm birth, and child mental health disorders such as autism and ADHD.

“When moms are exposed to this chemical, it can cross the placenta and go into fetal circulation,” said senior author Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a UW Medicine pediatrician and researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

This analysis involved data in the Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) research cohort, which comprised 1,031 pregnant individuals in Memphis, Tenn., who were enrolled between 2006 and 2011. Phthalate levels were measured in urine samples collected during the second trimester of pregnancy.

The researchers found that ultra-processed food composed 10% to 60% of participants’ diets, or 38.6%, on average. Each 10% higher dietary proportion of ultra-processed food was associated with a 13% higher concentration of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, one of the most common and harmful phthalates. The phthalate amounts were derived through urine samples taken from the women in the study.

Ultra-processed foods, according to the researchers, are made mostly from substances extracted from foods such as oils, sugar, and starch, but have been so changed from processing and the addition of chemicals and preservatives to enhance their appearance or shelf life that they are hard to recognize from their original form, researchers noted. These include packaged cake mixes, for example, or packaged french fries, hamburger buns, and soft drinks.

When it comes to fast food, gloves worn by the employees and the storage, preparation, serving equipment or tools may be the main sources of exposure. Both frozen and fresh ingredients would be subject to these sources, said lead author Brennan Baker, a postdoctoral researcher in Sathyanarayana’s lab.


This is the first study, researchers say, to identify ultra-processed foods as a link between exposure to phthalates and the socio-economics issues facing mothers. The mothers’ vulnerability might stem from experiencing financial hardships and from living in “food deserts” where healthier, fresh foods are harder to obtain and transportation to distant markets is unrealistic.

“We don’t blame the pregnant person here,” said Baker. “We need to call out manufacturers and legislators to offer replacements and ones that may not be even more harmful.”


More legislation is needed, the authors said, to prevent phthalate contamination in foods by regulating the composition of food wrapping or even the gloves that food handlers may use.

What should pregnant women do now? Sathyanarayana said that pregnant women should try to avoid ultra-processed food as much as they can, and seek out fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Reading labels can come into play here, she added.

“Look for the lower number of ingredients and make sure you can understand the ingredients,” she said. This applies even to “healthy foods” such as breakfast bars. See if it’s sweetened with dates or has a litany of fats and sugars in it, she said.


  1. Ultra-processed and fast food consumption, exposure to phthalates during pregnancy, and socioeconomic disparities in phthalate exposures – (


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