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How of­ten do you drop by your neigh­bour­hood food court to take home some hot, pi­quant and savoury hawker fare? This isn’t just about the calo­ries, but some­thing far worse- toxic chem­i­cals from plas­tic con­tain­ers lurk­ing in your food.

A study by Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity found that reg­u­lar din­ing at restau­rants, cafe­te­rias and fast-food out­lets may in­crease the level of po­ten­tially toxic chem­i­cals called ph­tha­lates in the body.

Ph­tha­lates are a group of chem­i­cals that are found in plas­tic ma­te­ri­als. Th­ese mol­e­cules are there­fore present in food pack­ag­ing items such as take­away boxes and even gloves used by food han­dlers. Ph­tha­lates can also leach into food items from the equip­ment used to pre­pare the food dur­ing the food-pro­cess­ing stage.

Th­ese harm­ful chem­i­cals are dan­ger­ous as they are for­eign mol­e­cules that could dis­rupt the hor­mones in your body. Th­ese mol­e­cules could es­pe­cially en­dan­ger the lives of preg­nant women as th­ese chem­i­cals could po­ten­tially lead to fer­til­ity prob­lems, preg­nancy com­pli­ca­tions and other health is­sues. Chil­dren are also vul­ner­a­ble to the effects of this toxic mol­e­cule.

Lead author of the study, Ju­lia Var­shavsky and se­nior author Ami Zota, as well as other re­searchers, used data from the Na­tional Health and Nu­tri­tion Ex­am­i­na­tion Sur­vey col­lected be­tween 2005 and 2014.

10,253 peo­ple were asked to re­call the food they have eaten in the past 24 hours. 61 per cent of the par­tic­i­pants re­ported din­ing out the pre­vi­ous day. The re­searchers then an­a­lysed the ph­tha­late lev­els in their urine sam­ples and com­pared th­ese re­sults to the in­for­ma­tion re­ceived ear­lier.

Upon study­ing this, the re­searchers con­cluded that there is a strong link be­tween ph­tha­late ex­po­sure and din­ing out, among all age groups but more promi­nently in teenagers. Not sur­pris­ingly, the study found that in­di­vid­u­als who con­sume more fast food, restaurant and cafe­te­ria meals have 35 per cent more ph­tha­late in their body than peo­ple who en­joyed more home-cooked meals.

They also found that fast food items like burg­ers and other sand­wiches have an in­creased level of ph­tha­lates. Does this in­for­ma­tion make you shud­der as you think about how many times you ate out last week? The best way to com­bat this is to veer to­wards home-cooked food.

Food pre­pared at home con­tains a much lower level of ph­tha­lates. This find­ing brings our at­ten­tion to the dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals we are ex­pos­ing our body to when­ever we choose to eat out. With the ubiq­uity of food courts in our coun­try, that amounts to a lot for Sin­ga­pore­ans.

Although ph­tha­lates are not en­tirely avoid­able as plas­tic pack­ag­ing dom­i­nates the world’s food and bev­er­age in­dus­try, we can surely take mea­sures to limit our ex­po­sure to such hor­mone-up­set­ting chem­i­cals. A lit­tle ef­fort to plan and pre­pare your own food at home with safe cooking prac­tices will go a long way.

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