Junk food and fast food are delicious and delicious, but it’s no surprise that these meals and snacks aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when considering what foods should be part of your next healthy meal. Throw in reports of toxins found in the foods we love to eat on the go, and the decision gets more complicated.
But aren’t foods like chicken nuggets, candy, and cheese pizza just the most nutrient-dense options, or do they pose a risk to human health when consumed?
Toxins in our treats?
Last month, a California lawsuit claimed the popular fruit-flavored Skittles are “unfit for human consumption” because of titanium dioxide — a chemical used to help the candies secure and retain their colorful hue. DJ Mazzoni, a registered dietitian and medical critic at New York-based Illuminate Labs, says the lawsuit isn’t surprising.
Mazzoni says that when looking at ingredient labels, U.S. consumers should be on the lookout for ingredients and additives banned in other countries, specifically citing titanium dioxide. “It’s banned as a food additive in the European Union, which has much better consumer protection than the US,” he says. “This ingredient can be toxic to humans and provides no nutritional benefits, so I would recommend avoiding all processed foods containing titanium dioxide.”
Of course, titanium dioxide isn’t the only harmful additive that can be found in junk food. And, this lawsuit is not the first time that food in the US has been found to be potentially dangerous to human health. Documentaries like Super Size Me, For example, consumers reassessed their love for McDonald’s chicken nuggets, along with the entire fast food industry, as early as 2004.
The problem with phthalates
In 2021, researchers from George Washington University, including environmental health scientist Lariah Edwards, conducted a study on potentially harmful industrial chemicals detected in fast food in the U.S. The result? The study found that popular fast food products from beloved chains contain phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics soft, which are known to disrupt the endocrine system.
“Phthalates are a class of chemicals that are used heavily in plastic materials such as food packaging and food processing equipment,” Edwards tells Yahoo Life. “Replacement plasticizers, also known as ‘non-phthalate plasticizers’, are chemicals used in his place phthalates, as some phthalates have been banned from use’.
“The phthalates we identified are of concern because some – such as DEHP and DnBP – have been consistently associated with reproductive, developmental and endocrine health problems in both animal and human studies,” he adds.
According to Edwards, unlike phthalates, the replacement plasticizers studied – DEHT, DEHA and DINCH – are less well understood. Because available scientific studies provide limited information on human toxicity and health effects, the increase in the use of these chemicals and their effects on human health are poorly understood. However, he believes the potential long-term effects are deeply troubling.
“Diet is the primary way people are exposed to phthalates,” says Edwards. “And some racial and ethnic groups in the US, such as non-Hispanic blacks, are more likely to eat fast food than others because of many factors, including decades of racial residential segregation.”
“This can lead to disparities in exposure,” he continues, “so if other chemicals are associated with eating fast food, there’s a chance that certain racial groups are also highly exposed to them.”
Lack of knowledge about the food we consume
How much does the average consumer really know what they consume every day? Anthony Zirfas lives in Orlando, Florida, and says that sometimes it can be hard to know the difference between what’s not good for you and what’s really bad for your overall health.
“Every year there is a new study on certain products that are potentially linked to cancer or some other disease,” he says. “Next year, that’s changing. We’re in the age of information and disinformation. Big companies are paying their way past regulations and occasionally creating regulations that support their own agendas. It’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s true, and what’s it actually has a big affect on you in terms of health.”
Andrew Livesay is the voice behind Ouch My Body, a Chicago-based physical and mental health blog that aims to inform the public about improvements they can make in their lives, specifically by providing advice on healthy food choices. Livesay says many popular junk foods contain harmful chemicals and dyes that can be dangerous.
“Some of these chemicals we love include artificial flavors and colors, preservatives and artificial sweeteners,” she says. “These chemicals can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer, birth defects and neurological damage.”
What about sugars and sweeteners?
Dr. David Culpepper, the clinical director of Kentucky-based LifeMD, has practiced general internal medicine for more than 30 years. Culpepper agrees that sugars are a genuine issue in most junk foods.
“This includes sucrose, fructose, and high fructose corn syrup,” says Culpepper. “These additives are particularly dangerous because not everyone recognizes that the names correspond to simple sugars. Too much simple sugar, unlike complex carbohydrates like whole grains, is associated with many diseases, including obesity, diabetes and an increased risk of cancer . . .
Additives … and packaging … matter
Dr. Naheed Ali, a Miami, Florida physician and USA RX partner, warns that in addition to food additives, packaging may be part of the problem. “Many processed and packaged foods contain dangerous chemicals and dyes,” says Ali, “for example, candy wrappers, drink bottles and even canned ravioli can contain bisphenol A (BPA), a dangerous plastic toxin. “BPA seeps into the body and affects hormone receptors, which can cause brain and reproductive problems.”
With so many different additives and chemicals in processed foods today, it’s understandable that consumers may feel like they want to avoid most of them at all costs. Maura Caruth, who lives in Lincoln Park, NJ says she avoids most processed foods. “I really prioritize what I put in my body,” she shares. “Sometimes when I go out to eat or spend time with family and friends, I relax, but every day at home, I avoid everything. I think it makes a huge difference in long-term — and short-term — health.”
Can you offset the effects of junk food?
In times when junk food and fast food are impossible to avoid, can anything be done to reduce the impact of a day of running fast food and junk food?
“Eating foods high in antioxidants can help ameliorate some of the harmful effects of inflammatory processed foods,” says Mazzoni. “Eating a salad after eating a fast food pizza is much healthier than eating a pizza by itself.” Mazzoni adds that what we drink can also be beneficial, “drinking enough water is especially important when consuming processed foods because these foods tend to be high in sodium.”
According to Edwards, another great way to reduce your risk is to avoid choosing fast food and junk food meals that contain meat. “In general, eating fewer fast food meals is also a good way to reduce exposure,” he says. “However, this is not a feasible option for everyone, as fast food meals are a cheap and convenient way to get food on the table.”
“For people who want to reduce their exposure to phthalates and replacement plasticizers in fast food,” he continues, “based on our results – choosing meat-free meals is a good way to reduce exposure to these chemicals ».
Livesay adds no matter what you eat, it’s important to make sure your body’s nutritional needs are met.
“If you must eat junk food, I would recommend getting all the important vitamins your body needs through over-the-counter pills,” says Livesay. “While there’s no definitive answer, most experts recommend limiting junk food to occasional indulgences: This means eating fast food or processed foods only occasionally and choosing healthier options most of the time. It’s important to know what you’re eating and we choose healthier options whenever possible.”
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