Diets rich in processed meat and butter have been associated with elevated levels of per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in human blood, according to a recent peer-reviewed research. PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” have been linked to severe health issues, including cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, congenital disabilities, kidney disease, and decreased immunity.

The research, led by Hailey Hampson, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, identified a range of foods linked to higher PFAS levels. These included teas, pork, candy, sports drinks, processed meat, butter, chips, and bottled water. The study also found that consuming more carryout or restaurant-prepared food was associated with higher PFAS blood levels.

Hampson emphasised that the goal is not to demonise specific foods but to advocate for increased testing and targeted monitoring of foods with potentially higher PFAS levels.

PFAS are a group of approximately 15,000 chemicals commonly used to provide water, stain, and heat resistance to various products. PFAS do not naturally degrade and pose serious health risks.

While water exposure to PFAS has received regulatory attention, the study underscores the significance of contaminated food as the primary threat to human health. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducts annual PFAS testing on food, reporting minimal contamination. However, independent scientists criticise the FDA’s testing methodologies, alleging they may underestimate contamination levels.

The primary sources of food contamination identified in the study include tainted water, greaseproof food wrappers, certain plastics, pesticides, and farms where PFAS-tainted sewage sludge is used as fertiliser.

The research involved two groups comprising over 700 individuals. One group’s dietary consumption and PFAS levels were monitored over four years. Evidence of food packaging contamination was identified, with homemade burritos, fajitas, tacos, French fries, and pizza associated with lower PFAS concentrations. Conversely, individuals consuming the same dishes prepared at restaurants exhibited increased PFAS concentrations in their blood, suggesting that food packaging, rather than the inherent healthiness of the food, may contribute to PFAS exposure.

The study also revealed that butter consumption would likely increase PFAS levels, possibly due to contamination from packaging, cows, or processing. While the consumption of nuts was associated with lower PFAS levels in the blood, nut butter showed higher levels, indicating potential contamination sources. Butter, often wrapped in greaseproof paper, may contribute to PFAS exposure. Moreover, higher PFAS levels in blood linked to increased bottled water consumption may indicate contamination from packaging or the water source.

The association between tea consumption and elevated PFAS levels is suspected to be related to tea bags treated with the chemicals, though further research is required to confirm this hypothesis.