Posted on Feb 07, 2024, 4 p.m.
A new study led by researchers at the KECK School of Medicine of USC published in the journal Environmental International sheds new light on food and beverage products, linking per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to dietary patterns, and suggests potential solutions for protecting public health. Findings point to the importance of both testing and monitoring various food and beverage products for PFAS contamination.
By now almost everyone has heard about PFAS and how dangerous they can be to our health, disrupting hormones, weakening bones, and increasing the risks of developing a host of diseases. PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they take so long to break down and are hard to get rid of, and they are commonly used in fabric, furniture, and other household items. Recent testing has traced these chemicals to livestock, drinking water, and food packaging, but not much is known about the extent of this contamination.
This study uncovered key details surrounding the link between forever chemicals and dietary patterns by investigating two multi-ethnic groups of young adults (727 in total), one group being primarily Hispanic from the Southern California Children’s Health Study (123 CHS adults) and the other being a nationally representative sample from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES 604 adults).
Participants answered a series of questions about dietary patterns, including how much/often they consumed various foods and beverages, how often they ate food made at home, or how often they had fast food or dine-in restaurants to determine contact with food packaging. Participants also provided blood samples to test for PFAS levels, with the CHS group being tested twice at the ages of 20 and 24; and the NHANEs group being tested once at 19 years old.
According to the researchers they found that consuming greater amounts of tea, processed meats, and food prepared outside of the home was associated with increased levels of PFAS within the body over time.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine how dietary factors are associated with changes in PFAS over time,” said Jesse A. Goodrich, Ph.D., assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine and the study’s senior author. “Looking at multiple time points gives us an idea of how changing people’s diets might actually impact PFAS levels.”
“We’re starting to see that even foods that are metabolically quite healthy can be contaminated with PFAS,” said Hailey Hampson, a doctoral student in the Keck School of Medicine’s Division of Environmental Health and the study’s lead author. “These findings highlight the need to look at what constitutes ‘healthy’ food in a different way.”
Results showed that those in the CHS group who reported higher tea consumption had higher levels of PFAS at the follow-up visit, and those who reported higher pork intake on their initial visit also had higher levels of PFAS at the follow-up. However, eating at home had the opposite effect, for every 200-gram increase in home-prepared foods levels were 0.9% lower.
Each additional daily serving of pork was associated with 13% higher blood levels of one PFAS chemical called PFOA after four years, and hot dogs showed a 25% increase in another PFAS. Experts suggest that PFAS chemicals accumulate in meat through environmental contamination of animal feed and contact with packaging and/or processing equipment.
Tea consumption surprisingly had stronger associations, with an extra daily serving being linked to 25% higher blood levels of PFHxS, 16% higher PFHpS, and 13% higher PFNA levels after four years. Experts suspect that the tea itself or the tea bags are becoming contaminated during manufacturing or packaging.
This was confirmed in the NHANES group, with those consuming more tea, hot dogs, and processed meats having higher PFAS levels, and eating more home-prepared meals was linked to lower levels of PFAS.
“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.
The researchers suggest that making healthy dietary changes could impact the levels of PFAS in the body, and monitoring certain products such as beverages and packing could help to identify as well as eliminate sources of contamination to protect public health, such as the advisory letter issued by California’s Attorney General in 2023 requiring manufacturers of food packaging and paper straw to disclose levels of PFAS in their products.
“That’s a really good step in the right direction, and our findings highlight the need for more of those types of regulations across the country,” Goodrich said.
The researchers are building on this research, further testing for the extent of PFAS that could be contaminating popular tea brands as well as conducting a follow-up study on diet and PFAS levels in a multi-ethnic group of participants.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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