Phthalates: A Hidden Danger

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and resilient.

Thirty or more phthalates are FDA approved food additives. However, it has been shown that phthalates can leach into food products and enter the human body. While the effects of these exposures are understudied, existing research demonstrates that there are numerous potential negative effects, including increased risk of obesity and increased waist size. Therefore, understanding what phthalates are and how they affect your health can be part of your holistic weight loss journey and a healthy lifestyle.

Phthalate Regulation

The FDA has approved thirty phthalates as food additives.

Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (“DEHP”) is the most widely banned phthalate worldwide yet is approved by the FDA. The FDA has set the allowable level for DEHP in bottled water at 0.006 milligram per liter. [1] With this regulatory scheme, it should come as no surprise that a CDC study found measurable levels of many metabolites of phthalates in the general US population. [2]

Other nations have stricter protections. European Union regulations have banned the use of phthalates in plastic food contact materials for fatty foods, except for three compounds that are highly regulated. Other nations, including Mexico, have banned phthalates.

Phthalates and Human Health

Phthalates are known hormone disruptors.

They can lower testosterone and alter thyroid function. Links have been demonstrated between phthalate exposure in pregnancy and early childhood and deficits in child IQ, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. Exposure during pregnancy is also linked to reproductive issues in male babies.

Phthalates, among other hormone-disrupting chemicals, have also been linked to weight gain. [3] At least one study has demonstrated that they may contribute to weight gain by affecting hormone receptors involved in regulating metabolism. [4] Human studies have shown associations between increased phthalate levels and obesity, insulin resistance and increased waist circumference.

No studies have evaluated the potential for DEHP in particular to cause cancer in humans, but studies have shown that high doses of DEHP over an extended period resulted in liver cancer in rats and mice. The Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) and the EPA have each determined that DEHP is likely to be a human carcinogen. [5]

Phthalates and Food

Phthalates are not directly added to food but find their way into food from a number of sources, including plastics. They can leach out of plastic containers, food wrappers, plastic gloves, and processing equipment. [6]

Phthalates be found in many processed foods, including macaroni and cheese powder. [7] Dairy products have been found to be the largest source of exposure to DEHP in pregnant women and children. [8] Fatty foods that come into contact with phthalate-containing plastics are a known source of exposure.

Controlling Your Exposure

Studies show that heating food in plastic can increase the amount of foreign substances—including phthalates—that leach into food. Migration is greater when plastics contact foods that are fatty, salty, or acidic.

In order to avoid exposure, the best strategy is to limit the amount of plastics that contact your food, both in packaging and cookware.

It can be difficult to eliminate all plastics from your food storage, preparation, and consumption.

Some of the best strategies for limiting the amount of unwanted chemicals that can leach from plastics include the following:

  • Avoid microwaving foods in plastics. This includes avoiding covering foods in plastic wrap.
  • Allow food to cool before placing it in plastic containers.
  • Hand wash plastics.
  • Dispose of plastic containers when they become scratched or worn.
  • Do not feed babies using plastic bottles.
  • Use metal or glass reusable water bottles (look for products that are BPA-free).

Avoid storing the following foods in plastics:

  • Fatty foods like meats and cheeses
  • Acidic foods like vinegar or salsa
  • Highly salty foods like popcorn or potato chips.
  • If you use brining as a method of seasoning, brine foods in a glass container.

If you’re concerned about phthalates in our food supply and wish to communicate that fact to regulators, check out the following campaign here.

Contact us for more information regarding holistic weight loss.


[1] https://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/Guidances/ucm302164.htm
[2] https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/Phthalates_FactSheet.html
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28205155
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19433246
[5] https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=376&tid=65
[6] https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cookware-plastics-shoppers-guide-to-food-safety#1
[7] https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/toxic-industrial-chemicals-found-in-10-varieties-of-macaroni-and-cheese-powders
[8] https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-43

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