New Study Warns Pregnant Women Against Ultraprocessed and Fast Foods

by Ella

Research published in the journal Environmental International last month has raised concerns for pregnant women regarding their consumption of ultraprocessed and fast foods. The study highlights the potential risks associated with exposure to phthalates, a class of chemicals commonly found in plastics, which can contaminate food through packaging and handling.

While the focus is not on the food itself—such as burgers or fries—but rather on what comes into contact with it before consumption, the implications are significant for expectant mothers. Phthalates have been shown to migrate from wrapping, packaging materials, and even plastic gloves used by food handlers, ultimately entering the food supply. Once ingested during pregnancy, these chemicals can traverse the bloodstream, passing through the placenta and into the fetal circulation.


Researchers have identified that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy can lead to oxidative stress and trigger an inflammatory response in the fetus. Previous studies have also linked phthalate exposure to adverse outcomes such as low birth weight, preterm birth, and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD.


The latest study, conducted on pregnant women, underscores a correlation between diets high in ultraprocessed foods and increased phthalate exposure. Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician and researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, highlights the significance of this finding, emphasizing the potential risks posed to fetal health.


The analysis drew from data collected in the Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) research cohort, which comprised 1,031 pregnant individuals in Memphis, Tennessee, enrolled between 2006 and 2011. Urine samples collected during the second trimester of pregnancy were analyzed for phthalate levels.


Results revealed that ultraprocessed foods accounted for 10% to 60% of participants’ diets, with an average of 38.6%. Importantly, for every 10% increase in the dietary proportion of ultraprocessed foods, there was a corresponding 13% rise in the concentration of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, one of the most prevalent and harmful phthalates.

Ultraprocessed foods, as defined by researchers, undergo extensive processing and contain additives, preservatives, and chemicals that alter their original form. Examples include packaged cake mixes, french fries, hamburger buns, and soft drinks, which bear little resemblance to their natural counterparts.

Lead author Brennan Baker, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Sathyanarayana’s lab, emphasizes that exposure to phthalates in fast food establishments may stem from various sources, including gloves worn by employees and the storage and preparation equipment. Both fresh and frozen ingredients are susceptible to contamination from these sources.

In light of these findings, the study underscores the importance of pregnant women being mindful of their dietary choices, opting for whole, minimally processed foods to mitigate exposure to harmful chemicals. By prioritizing nutritious, unprocessed options, expectant mothers can safeguard their health and the well-being of their unborn children.



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