sandwich on food packaging

Photo by Eaters Collective from Unsplash

🔑 Key Findings:

  • Tea and processed meats show the highest levels of contamination
  • “Forever chemicals” on countless household items can leach into your food and drinks
  • Researchers say home-cooked meals may prevent contamination

LOS ANGELES — That cup of tea you’re sipping or the sliced turkey from your sandwich could be exposing you to concerning levels of toxic “forever chemicals,” new research warns. A study by a team at the Keck School of Medicine of USC has found links between higher dietary consumption of certain foods and beverages and increased levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) accumulating in the body over time.

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals found in many household products like nonstick pans, water-resistant textiles, and food packaging. Their stable carbon-fluorine bonds prevent them from breaking down easily, hence the “forever chemicals” nickname. As a result, PFAS accumulate in the body and environment over time.

Research has connected high PFAS exposure to health issues like liver damage, high cholesterol, disrupted blood sugar levels, and even cancers. They can also weaken bones, alter hormones, and suppress overall immune function. Most people have PFAS in their bodies due to their widespread presence globally. So, just how much do foods contribute?

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine how dietary factors are associated with changes in PFAS over time,” says lead author Jesse A. Goodrich, PhD, assistant professor of population and public health sciences at Keck, in a statement. “Looking at multiple time points gives us an idea of how changing people’s diets might actually impact PFAS levels.”

Which Foods Are Linked to Higher PFAS Levels?

To find out, researchers analyzed diet and PFAS data from two groups: 123 Hispanic young adults in Southern California followed for four years and over 600 young adults nationwide who participated in a government health survey. Researchers found that greater consumption of tea, processed meats like hot dogs, salami, and ham, and foods prepared outside the home were associated with a rise in PFAS levels in the body years later.

“We’re starting to see that even foods that are metabolically quite healthy can be contaminated with PFAS,” says lead study author Hailey Hampson, a doctoral student under Goodrich. “These findings highlight the need to look at what constitutes ‘healthy’ food in a different way.”

Meats emerged as major PFAS sources. Each additional daily serving of pork was tied to 13 percent higher blood levels of one PFAS chemical called PFOA after four years. Hot dogs showed a 25-percent increase in another PFAS. Experts say PFAS chemicals accumulate in meat through environmental contamination of animal feed and contact with packaging and processing equipment.

However, tea carried the strongest PFAS chemical associations. An extra daily serving was linked to 25 percent higher blood levels of PFHxS, 16 percent higher PFHpS, and 13 percent higher PFNA after four years. Researchers suspect the tea itself or the tea bags are contaminated during manufacturing or packaging.

Tea carried the strongest PFAS chemical associations. An extra daily serving was linked to 25 percent higher blood levels of PFHxS. (Photo by Laårk Boshoff on Unsplash)

Unexpectedly, sugar had the opposite relationship – higher intakes were linked to around 15-20 percent lower PFAS after four years. This could be because drinking more sugary sodas and juices replaces tap water, a known PFAS source, the team speculates. Analyses also hinted that food packaging used in fast food preparation and takeout could transfer PFAS chemicals into the meals.

To that finding, the study shows that eating an extra 200 grams of home-cooked meals daily led to slightly lower PFAS measurements in the bloodstream over time.

“This really helped us determine that the associations we are seeing aren’t just true for one geographical location, but are actually applicable to people across the country,” Goodrich said, after confirming the findings in a nationally representative group.

Ongoing Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

So, why should we care about a buildup of PFAS chemicals over years and decades? Previous research has already connected high exposures to these pervasive industrial compounds with negative health outcomes.

PFAS are known to linger in the body thanks to their stubborn molecular bonds. Scientists have detected PFAS in nearly all people tested, including babies. Lab studies show links between PFAS absorption and outcomes like hormone disruption, infertility, decreased vaccine effectiveness, liver and kidney dysfunction, and certain cancers.

While the study doesn’t prove cause-and-effect, Hampson says it highlights dietary habits that potentially increase chemical exposures for Hispanic young adults, who face higher risk of diabetes and other diseases associated with PFAS.

“Our findings highlight the need for more of those types of regulations across the country,” Goodrich urged, pointing to recent precedent in California. In January, the state’s Attorney General told manufacturers of food packaging materials that they need to start disclosing PFAS content in their products by year’s end.

Home-Cooked Meals FTW

As for the next steps, Goodrich and Hampson said they plan to publish forthcoming research into PFAS contamination across popular tea brands. They also hope to replicate the diet study in larger and more diverse groups of participants.

“Observing that links between PFAS levels and food products change over time suggests that dietary changes could impact PFAS levels in the body,” explained Hampson. “The findings also suggest that public monitoring of certain products, such as beverages, could help identify and eliminate sources of contamination.”

In the meantime, experts suggest opting for more home-cooked meals and consuming more fruits and vegetables. Building healthy cooking and eating habits in young adulthood can reduce disease risk throughout life. This study suggests it may also lower exposures to “forever chemicals” like PFAS.

So, next time you grab groceries or a quick bite, consider what’s going into your body beyond just calories. Your long-term health may depend on it.

The study is published in the journal Environment International.

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