by Sharon Udasin – 02/06/24 12:49 PM ET
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Young adults whose diets are rich in unsweetened teas, processed meats and takeout foods could be increasing their exposure to “forever chemicals,” a new study has found.

Altering these eating habits could bring notable declines in the levels of these compounds, known as PFAS, that are contaminating their blood, according to the study, published Monday in Environment International.

“We’re starting to see that even foods that are metabolically quite healthy can be contaminated with PFAS,” lead author Hailey Hampson, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Keck School of Medicine, said in a statement.

“These findings highlight the need to look at what constitutes ‘healthy’ food in a different way,” Hampson added.

Known for their ability to linger in the environment and the human body, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been linked to kidney cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.

While most notorious for their presence in certain types of firefighting foams and industrial discharge, PFAS are also present in many household and commercial products, such as nonstick pans and food packaging, as well as contaminated livestock and drinking water.

With that existing knowledge in mind, Hampson and a team of researchers explored how dietary choices could impact exposure levels in young adults, with a particular focus on a Hispanic population subset.

They expressed particular interest in these individuals due to documented health disparities in this population, including a heightened risk of noncommunicable metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

The scientists focused their research on two multiethnic groups: a predominantly Hispanic young adult cohort from USC’s Children’s Health Study, and a nationally representative set from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The first group contained 123 individuals, ages 17-22, who partook in the Children’s Health Study between 2014-18, while the second included 604 similarly aged NHANES participants from 2013-18.

The young adults answered a variety of questions about their diet, including how often they consumed processed meats, dark green vegetables, breads, sports drinks, teas and milk.

They also indicated how frequently they ate food prepared at home, at fast food establishments and at non-fast-food restaurants.

The Children’s Health Study participants gave blood samples during two visits, at around ages 20 and 24, while the NHANES group members did so once, at about age 19, according to the study.

Looking at the baseline versus follow-up visits in the USC data, the scientists observed the strongest associations between PFAS concentrations and heightened tea and pork intake.

Just one additional serving of tea intake was linked to a 24.8 percent increase in a type of PFAS known as PFHxS, a 16.7 percent rise in PFHpS and a 12.6 percent surge in PFNA.

Those who reported eating more pork experienced a 13.4 percent rise in PFOA — one of the most well-studied and notorious types of PFAS.

The researchers observed similar associations in the NHANES group, where greater intake of hot dogs and processed meats was linked to higher PFNA and PFOA levels, respectively. They saw that an increase in tea consumption was connected to heightened levels of PFOS, another common type of PFAS.

Consuming food prepared at home had the opposite effect, the scientists found.

For every 200-gram increase in home-prepped food, PFOS levels were 0.9 percent lower at baseline and 1.6 percent lower at follow-up in the USC cohort, according to the study.

The NHANES data yielded similar conclusions, the authors noted.

While both restaurant and fast-food versions of takeout foods were associated with increased levels of PFAS in both cohorts, the scientists observed a greater connection to fast food in the Children’s Health Study group.

“These results suggest that fast food may provide higher PFAS exposures, which could be from grease-resistant food packaging containing PFAS,” they stated.

“Home-sourced foods were consistently associated with lower PFAS concentrations,” the authors added, while noting that “home cooking may help young adults reduce their exposures to PFAS.”

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