Why Eating Out Can Be Toxic

Why Eating Out Can Be Toxic

Going to restaurants is a favorite pastime for many people, but there may be some unforeseen dangers lurking in the meals you buy. According to a recent University of California and George Washington University study, eating out may boost your risk of cancer and other health problems.

The reason behind this greater risk of developing cancer is the presence of phthalates, which are substances often used in plastics and products that contain them. These toxic chemicals can leach into your food from a variety of sources, including the equipment used to process the food, packaging, takeout boxes, gloves worn by restaurant workers, and plastic storage and heating containers.

Read about 10 surprising places you can find phthalates

Study of increased cancer risk with eating out

According to the findings of the study, exposure to phthalates, which have been shown to disrupt hormones in the body, have been associated with breast cancer, fertility issues, and type 2 diabetes, as well as difficulty losing weight and birth defects in children.

The researchers evaluated data collected from 10,253 individuals between 2005 and 2014 who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Phthalate levels were 35 percent higher in people who regularly ate out at commercial facilities than those who ate at home.

Researchers at George Washington University and the University of California Berkeley and San Francisco used data from 10,253 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected between 2005 and 2014. They found that:

  • Levels of the chemicals were 35 percent higher in those who regularly ate at restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food places.
  • This link was especially high among young people. That is, the impact of phthalates is growing among babies, children, and teens.
  • Phthalate levels in the urine of teenagers who consumed the most amount of food purchased outside the home had 55 percent higher levels of the contaminant than their peers who ate home-cooked meals.
  • The association was found to be highest for adolescents. Teenagers who ate the most amount of food purchased outside the home had 55 percent higher levels of phthalates in their urine than those eating home-cooked meals.

The findings suggest that eating home prepared foods is less likely to expose you to high levels of phthalates. According to senior author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institutes School of Public Health at the George Washington University, the findings “suggest that dining out may be an important and previously under-recognized source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.”

Read about why phthalates are dangerous chemicals

More concerns were raised by lead author Dr. Julia Varshavsky, of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. She noted that “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.”

What you can do

To help you avoid exposure to phthalates from food that has not been prepared at home, here are a few suggestions.

  • Refuse to use polystyrene (Styrofoam™) containers (be sure to look at these pictures BEFORE using polystyrene again!). Instead, if you must use a takeout container from a restaurant, ask them to line plastic containers with unbleached parchment paper or to use non-leaching plastic containers numbers 2, 4, or 5. You also may ask for paper containers, but they may be lined with chemically treated paper, so you may want to ask this question. Be prepared to receive an “I don’t know” response from your server.
  • If you eat out, bring your own containers from home for leftovers. Those containers should be glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or silicon.
  • Try an eating-out alternative: hold a potluck at your house or rotate potlucks or dinners at the homes of family or friends one or more times a month. Everyone must bring a homemade prepared item-no takeout food!
  • Dine at establishments that use locally grown, organic produce and other food items that are natural and minimally processed or not processed at all.


D’Souza K. Levels of hormone-disrupting phthalates rise after dining out. The Standard 2018 Apr 3

Gander K. What are phthalates? Dining out raises level of chemicals linked to cancer. Newsweek 2018 Mar 29

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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.