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Fast and ultra-processed foods risky for pregnant women: Research

The study in Environmental International warns pregnant individuals against consuming ultraprocessed foods due to potential phthalate exposure, linking it to adverse fetal health outcomes. Emphasizes legislative action and mindful food choices.

Written By: Rahul Pratyush New Delhi Updated on: February 09, 2024 10:46 IST
pregnant women
Image Source : GOOGLE Fast and ultra-processed foods risky for pregnant women: Research

A recent study published in the journal Environmental International highlights the importance of pregnant individuals being cautious about their food choices, particularly concerning exposure to phthalates, a class of chemicals commonly associated with plastics. Surprisingly, the study suggests that it's not necessarily the food itself, but rather what touches the food before consumption, such as wrapping, packaging, and even plastic gloves worn by food handlers, that poses a risk.

Researchers found that phthalates, once consumed during pregnancy, can enter the bloodstream, cross the placenta, and affect the fetus. Exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy has been linked to various adverse outcomes, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and mental health disorders in children, such as autism and ADHD.

"When moms are exposed to this chemical, it can cross the placenta and go into fetal circulation," said senior author Dr Sheela Sathyanarayana, a UW Medicine paediatrician and researcher at the Seattle Children's Research Institute.

The study, conducted on 1,031 pregnant individuals in Memphis, Tenn., revealed that diets higher in ultra-processed foods are associated with greater exposure to phthalates. Ultra-processed foods, which undergo extensive processing and contain additives and preservatives, comprise a significant portion of many people's diets and are often difficult to recognise in their original form.

According to the researchers, ultra-processed foods, such as packaged cake mixes, french fries, hamburger buns, and soft drinks, contribute substantially to phthalate exposure. Fast food establishments are also implicated, with gloves worn by employees and food handling practices identified as potential sources of exposure.

The study sheds light on the socioeconomic factors that contribute to phthalate exposure among pregnant individuals. Financial hardships and living in areas with limited access to fresh, healthy foods exacerbate the vulnerability of expectant mothers to these harmful chemicals.

In light of these findings, the authors emphasise the need for legislative action to regulate the composition of food packaging and food handling practices to prevent phthalate contamination. Pregnant women are advised to minimise their consumption of ultra-processed foods and opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats instead.

According to Sathyanarayana, reading food labels and choosing products with fewer ingredients, as well as understanding those ingredients, is recommended to reduce exposure to phthalates. "Look for the lower number of ingredients and make sure you can understand the ingredients," she said. This applies even to "healthy foods" such as breakfast bars. See if it's sweetened with dates or has a litany of fats and sugars in it, she said.

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