Food apartheid is still harming communities of color — but it’s about more than fat and salt

Fast foods contain high levels of a class of questionable chemicals, according to a new study. BIPOC may be especially susceptible to them.

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Systemic racism is embedded in every aspect of life in the U.S., even in those many of us take for granted — like what we eat. A long history of discriminatory lending practices, zoning codes, and other policies have limited access to healthy food in communities of color, according to the National Resources Defense Council, a systematic process known as food apartheid. These neighborhoods have not only a dearth of affordable grocery stores, but also a glut of fast-food restaurants, which some experts blame for contributing to higher rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases among Black and Latinx people. Now, a new study reveals another potential risk that high concentrations of fast food restaurants pose to these populations: exposure to potentially shady class of chemicals known as phthalates.

First, a crash course on these chemicals: Found in makeup, shampoo, food packaging, and a plethora of other products, phthalates are added to plastic and other substances to make them more pliable, Gizmodo explained. They also happen to mimic or interfere with hormones our bodies naturally make. Animal and human studies have associated higher exposure to phthalates with a higher risk of asthma, gestational diabetes, and other health problems. As worrisome as all of this might seem, though, it’s crucial to stress that we still don’t know how strongly correlated phthalate exposure is to these conditions.

While phthalates are pretty much everywhere, Gizmodo reported that previous studies by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health has suggested that fast foods contain especially high levels of them. In a study published today in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, they further investigated this possibility. They visited six fast food restaurants in the San Antonio area, where they collected 64 food samples, as well as food-handling gloves. Then, they analyzed them for the presence of 11 chemicals, including phthalates and plasticizers purported to be safer alternatives to phthalates.

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The researchers detected a phthalate known as DnBP in 81% of the food samples, and another called DEHP in 70%, per Gizmodo. Both chemicals are suspected to be involved in fertility issues. They found a non-phthalate plasticizer marketed as safer than phthalates, known as DEHT, in 89% of the food samples. In general, meat items like cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets contained higher levels of the chemicals studied than non-meat items. According to Gizmodo, plastic packaging and food-handling gloves may have contaminated the food with these chemicals.

At this point, the possible harms of phthalates in fast food are hard to measure, the outlet explained. But the researchers noted in their study that marginalized people might be disproportionately exposed to them.

“These results have implications for health equity since Black people in the U.S. report greater fast food consumption than other racial/ethnic groups and also face higher exposures to environmental chemicals from other sources,” they wrote. Indeed, people of color are more likely to breathe polluted air and live near facilities that spew out hazardous waste. As the authors of the new study pointed out, fast food may only further contribute to these racial disparities in chemical exposures. If so, it would be yet another example of a reality we’re still reckoning with — that systemic racism shapes not only our policies, but our biology, too.