A recent study published in the journal Environmental International highlights the importance of pregnant women being cautious when making food choices, especially when it comes to exposure to phthalates, a class of chemicals commonly associated with plastics. Surprisingly, the study suggests that it is not necessarily the food itself, but what comes into contact with the food before consumption, such as the wrapping, packaging and even the plastic gloves used by food handlers, that that represents a risk.
Researchers found that phthalates, once consumed during pregnancy, can enter the bloodstream, cross the placenta and affect the fetus. Exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy has been linked to a number of adverse outcomes, including low birth weight, premature birth, and mental health disorders in children, such as autism and ADHD.
“When moms are exposed to this chemical, it can cross the placenta and enter the fetal circulation,” said lead author Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a UW Medicine pediatrician and researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
The study, conducted with 1,031 pregnant people in Memphis, Tennessee, revealed that diets rich in ultra-processed foods are associated with increased exposure to phthalates. Ultra-processed foods, which undergo extensive processing and contain additives and preservatives, are an important part of many people’s diets and are often difficult to recognize in their original form.
According to researchers, ultra-processed foods, such as packaged cake mixes, French fries, hamburger buns, and soft drinks, contribute substantially to phthalate exposure. Fast food establishments are also implicated, as employees wear gloves and food handling practices are identified as potential sources of exposure.
The study sheds light on the socioeconomic factors that contribute to phthalate exposure among pregnant women. Financial hardship and living in areas with limited access to fresh, healthy foods exacerbate pregnant women’s vulnerability to these harmful chemicals.
In light of these findings, the authors emphasize the need for legislative action to regulate the composition of food packaging and food handling practices to prevent phthalate contamination. Pregnant women are advised to minimize consumption of ultra-processed foods and opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
According to Sathyanarayana, it is recommended to read food labels and choose products with fewer ingredients, as well as understand those ingredients, to reduce exposure to phthalates. “Look for the fewest ingredients and make sure you can understand them,” she said. This even applies to “health foods” like breakfast bars. See if it’s sweetened with dates or contains a litany of fats and sugars, she said.
READ ALSO: Weight loss surgery will be a more effective method to control hypertension: study