This is one harmful chemical that you can't see or smell… and it may be lurking in your food.
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It's no secret—fast food is definitely not the best option for you. You don't have to look very far for studies linking fast food consumption to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease. And there's even research suggesting the body treats fast food the same as a bacterial infection.

But there’s a new, somewhat under-the-radar concern when it comes to hitting the drive thru. A study published by a team of researchers at George Washington University found that those who increasingly eat food prepared outside of their own kitchens are exposed to higher levels of phthalates, as highlighted by Science Daily

So... what are phthalates, you might ask? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, phthalates are a group of chemicals used in plastic to make them more flexible and harder to break.

Also known as "plasticizers", these chemicals are found in most things made with, well, plastic: Inflatable toys, medical tubing, plastic clothing, vinyl flooring, and automotive plastic. In addition, the chemicals can be found in some personal care products like shampoo and other cosmetics.

You're most likely coming into contact with phthalates by eating and drinking foods that are served in containers made with the material. We're also potentially breathing in air containing the chemical and absorbing it through our skin when using products made with phthalates. After the body converts the chemicals into metabolites, they're typically disposed of through urine.

Though the CDC and FDA have previously reported little about the effects of phthalates on humans, recent research from 2017 cited harmful effects due to overexposure, including hormone imbalances, infertility, and other reproductive issues.

The team at GWU analyzed data collected from more than 10,000 participants between 2005 and 2014. Subjects were questioned about the food they ate (and where they purchased it from) and researchers then tested people's urine samples.

Just over 60 percent of participants ate at restaurants, fast food chains, and cafeterias. Those that did had 35 percent higher phthalate levels than those who said they cooked at home using groceries purchased at the store. The study pinpointed cheeseburgers and other drive-thru-assembled sandwiches as particularly high sources of the toxin.

Ami Zota, ScD, MS, the senior author behind the study and a professor of environmental health at George Washington University, believes there's a simple solution to avoiding the toxin for aware diners, and it's one that we champion all the time here.

"Preparing food at home may represent a win-win for consumers," Zota tod Science Daily. "Home cooked meals can be a good way to reduce sugar, unhealthy fats and salt. And this study suggests it may not have as many harmful phthalates as a restaurant meal."