Chemicals known as "forever chemicals" or PFAS have been in the news a lot recently. This is because PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are in so many products that we all use, yet research is showing more and more health harms from them. Including to pregnant women and developing babies.
A recent study found that pregnant women who ate more ultra-processed or fast foods had higher levels of a type of forever chemicals (PFAS) called phthalates in their bodies. The food wrappers and packaging of ultra-processed and fast food, and even the gloves worn by food handlers, are a source of the harmful chemicals.
The chemicals migrate from the packaging or wrapping into the food, which is then ingested by the person. They then get into the pregnant woman's bloodstream, and eventually the placenta and fetus. They are endocrine (hormone) disruptors. Studies find that pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates have an increased risk of preterm birth, babies with low birth weight, and other problems (e.g., autism spectrum disorder).
The researchers found that diets high in vegetables, fruits, yogurt, fish, and nuts during pregnancy were associated with lower phthalate levels (measured in the urine of the pregnant women). Ultra-processed foods were between 9.8 to 59.% of the pregnant women's diets, with the average being 38.6%.
Unfortunately, unprocessed and minimally processed foods are more expensive than ultra-processed foods. So it wasn't surprising that socioeconomic levels (including income levels) made a difference - the lower the household income, the greater the average ultra-processed food intake.
Bottom line: Try to eat less fast food and pre-made packaged food. Read labels and avoid foods with ingredients that are not found normally in a home kitchen, but are chemicals (e.g., soy lecithin, carrageenan, high-fructose corn syrup, colors). We can't totally avoid all PFAS, but we can lower our exposure to them.
From Medical Xpress: Study: Pregnant women should avoid ultraprocessed, fast foods
If you're pregnant, you may want to think twice before making a hamburger run or reaching for a prepackaged pastry, according to research published last month in the journal Environmental International.
Oddly enough it's not the food that the report targets—not the fries, burgers or even the shakes and cakes—but what touches the food before you eat it.
Research shows that phthalates, a class of chemicals associated with plastics, can shed from the wrapping, packaging and even from plastic gloves worn by food handlers into food. Once consumed during pregnancy, the chemicals can get into the bloodstream, through the placenta and then into the fetal bloodstream.
The chemical can cause oxidative stress and an inflammatory cascade within the fetus, researchers noted. 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.
This is the first study in pregnant women to show that diets higher in ultraprocessed foods are linked to greater phthalate exposures, the authors wrote.
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 from during the second trimester of pregnancy.
The researchers found that ultraprocessed food comprised 10% to 60% of participants' diets, or 38.6%, on average. Each 10% higher dietary proportion of ultraprocessed food was associated with 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.
Ultraprocessed 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 ultraprocessed foods as a link between exposure to phthalates and the socioeconomics issues facing the 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.
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 ultraprocessed 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.