Photo credit: Texas A&M Health Science
Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), a chemical commonly used in the food manufacturing process, can increase fat stores in the body even before we’re born, according to a new study published in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology.
The study, led by Mahua Choudhury, PhD, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, used animal stem cells to identify changes to the epigenome of the stem cell line when exposed to the chemical BBP when compared to a control. The cell lines exposed to increasingly higher levels of BBP also showed higher levels of adipogenesis—the process by which fat cells develop—as much as five times higher, depending on the dose.
“We were quite surprised by the results,” Choudhury said. “We had thought we would see some increase, but nothing this dramatic.” Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, capable of becoming different specialized cells. Because of this, the epigenetic changes observed in the animal stem cells could affect not just an adult exposed to BBP, but also a growing fetus.
The study involved exposing animal stem cells to varying concentrations of BBP. While the results were striking, researchers were quick to note they could not yet be applied to a human population. “These results are important, but they are just the first step in further study,” Choudhury cautioned.
Phthalates & human exposure
BBP is part of a chemical family called phthalates, which are typically used to make plastics soft and malleable. While BBP is used in many consumer products such as carpet and vinyl flooring, the primary human exposure comes from food consumption. BBP is not used in food preparation, but it is used in the conveyor belts and plastic fittings on machines used to process many prepared foods. Food becomes contaminated when BBP leeches into it from the plastic.
Choudhury noted that BBP is banned in all toys and childcare articles both manufactured in, and imported into, the European Union (EU). The EU has also banned BBP’s use in nail polish, as it is considered to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMR-substance). While the United States has set limits on the amount of BBP permissible in certain consumer products, it has yet to take the same steps as the EU. “I don’t think there is enough evidence yet for government to step in,” Choudhury said. “The issue is very complex.”
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