Journalism in the Public Interest

Do These Chemicals Make Me Look Fat?

Why are Americans – and animals – getting fatter? It isn’t just because of eating more and exercising less.

An international team of scientists published findings in 2010 that two dozen animal populations have been rapidly packing on the pounds in recent decades. In captivity, orangutans have developed physiques of spreading batter. (Trisnadi/AP Photo)

Everyone knows Americans are fat and getting fatter, and everyone thinks they know why: more eating and less moving.

But the “big two” factors may not be the whole story. Consider this: Animals have been getting fatter too. The National Pet Obesity Survey recently reported that more than 50 percent of cats and dogs — that’s more than 80 million pets — are overweight or obese. Pets have gotten so plump that there’s now a National Pet Obesity Awareness Day. (It was Wednesday.) Lap dogs and comatose cats aren’t alone in the fat animal kingdom. Animals in strictly controlled research laboratories that have enforced the same diet and lifestyle for decades are also ballooning.

In 2010, an international team of scientists published findings that two dozen animal populations — all cared for by or living near humans — had been rapidly fattening in recent decades. “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” they titled the paper, and the “canaries” most closely genetically related to humans — chimps — showed the most troubling trend. Between 1985 and 2005, the male and female chimps studied experienced 33.2 and 37.2 percent weight gains, respectively. Their odds of obesity increased more than 10-fold.

To be sure, some of the chimp obesity crisis may be caused by the big two. According to Joseph Kemnitz, director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, animal welfare laws passed in recent decades have led caretakers to strive to make animals happier, often employing a method known to any parent of a toddler: plying them with sugary food. “All animals love to eat, and you can make them happy by giving them food,” Kemnitz said. “We have to be careful how much of that kind of enrichment we give them. They might be happier, but not healthier.”

And because they don’t have to forage for the food, non-human primates get less exercise. Orangutans, who Kemnitz says are rather indolent even in their native habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, have in captivity developed the physique of spreading batter.

Still, in “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” the scientists write that, more recently, the chimps studied were “living in highly controlled environments with nearly constant living conditions and diets,” so their continued fattening in stable circumstances was a surprise. The same goes for lab rats, which have been living and eating the same way for thirty years.

The potential causes of animal obesity are legion: ranging from increased rates of certain infections to stress from captivity. Antibiotics might increase obesity by killing off beneficial bacteria. “Some bacteria in our intestines are associated with weight gain,” Kemnitz said. “Others might provide a protective effect.”

But feral rats studied around Baltimore have gotten fatter, and they don’t suffer the stress of captivity, nor have they received antibiotics. Increasingly, scientists are turning their attention toward factors that humans and the wild and captive animals that live around them have in common: air, soil, and water, and the hormone-altering chemicals that pollute them.

Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, released by a particular gland or organ but capable of affecting cells all over the body. While hormones such as testosterone and estrogen help make men masculine and women feminine, they and other hormones are involved in a vast array of functions. Altering or impeding hormones can cause systemic effects, such as weight gain.

More than a decade ago, Paula Baille-Hamilton, a visiting fellow at Stirling University in Scotland who studies toxicology and human metabolism, started perusing scientific literature for chemicals that might promote obesity. She turned up so many papers containing evidence of chemical-induced obesity in animals (often, she says, passed off by study authors as a fluke in their work) that it took her three years to organize evidence for the aptly titled 2002 review paper: “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.” “I found evidence of chemicals that affect every aspect of our metabolism,” Baille-Hamilton said. Carbamates, which are used in insecticides and fungicides, can suppress the level of physical activity in mice. Phthalates are used to give flexibility to plastics and are found in a wide array of scented products, from perfume to shampoo. In people, they alter metabolism and have been found in higher concentrations in heavier men and women.

In men, phthalates interfere with the normal action of testosterone, an important hormone for maintaining healthy body composition. Phthalate exposure in males has been associated with a suite of traits symptomatic of low testosterone, from lower sperm count to greater heft. (Interference with testosterone may also explain why baby boys of mothers with higher phthalate levels have shorter anogenital distances, that is, the distance between the rectum and the scrotum. Call it what you want, fellas, but if you have a ruler handy and find that your AGD is shorter than two inches, you probably have a smaller penis volume and a markedly higher risk of infertility.)

Baille-Hamilton’s work highlights evidence that weight gain can be influenced by endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic and can interfere with the natural hormone system.

A variety of flame retardants have been implicated in endocrine disruption, and one chemical originally developed as a flame retardant — brominated vegetable oil, or BVO — is banned in Europe and Japan but is prevalent in citrusy soft drinks in the U.S. Earlier this year, Gatorade ditched BVO, but it’s still in Mountain Dew and other drinks made by Gatorade’s parent company, PepsiCo. (Many doctors would argue that for weight gain, the sugar in those drinks is the primary concern.) PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment, but shortly after the Gatorade decision was made a company spokeswoman said it was because “some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade.”

While PepsiCo has taken brominated vegetable oil out of Gatorade, it's still in Mountain Dew and other drinks.

While PepsiCo has taken brominated vegetable oil out of Gatorade, it's still in Mountain Dew and other drinks made by the company. (Krista Kjellman Schmidt/ProPublica)

And then there are the newly found zombie chemicals, which share a nasty habit — rising from the dead at night — with their eponymous horror flick villains. The anabolic steroid trenbolone acetate is used as a growth promoter in cattle in the U.S., and its endocrine disrupting metabolites — which wind up in agricultural run-off water — were thought to degrade quickly upon exposure to sunlight. Until last month, when researchers published results in Science showing that the metabolites reconstitute themselves in the dark.

Says Emily Dhurandhar, an obesity researcher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham: “Obesity really is more complex than couch potatoes and gluttons.”


Oct. 11, 2013, 12:38 p.m.

This is eye opening and really scary.

Chemophobe drivel.  Embarrassing.

Yes, it’s paranoid to think eating chemicals you can’t even pronounce will hurt you.

Thanks to Monsanto and Obuma for giving them immunity from prosecution. Either way, the 2 will find a way to kill us all.

That explains also this muffin top that most teenager & other are carrying around…scary future health problems.

While I think ProPublica is well-suited to provide an intelligent & well-investigated synopsis of the science of chemical hormone disruption, this is not that article. This is Rodale. This is HuffPo. You can make this conversation smarter.

Ardella Carroll

Oct. 11, 2013, 3:06 p.m.

Our food is genetically altered.“The World According to Monsanto.”

I appreciate the awareness of this article but it’s hardly a ground breaking revelation.  There are more qualified journalists and web sites who have reported all of this for years if not more than a decade.

I view ProPublica’s role more in investigative journalism surrounding government transparency.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  At some point you need to define who and what you are.

i was hoping to hear more specific names/chemicals to avoid.
i think too that a lot of obesity is dysfunctionally hereditary ~ if your parents were FAT you’ll likly be FAT too without awareness.
i’ts likly a combination of dysfunctional, genes, chemicals and lack of motivation imo

Well, we have a Supreme Court bought and paid for by the corporations. The corporations ONLY care about their profits… NOT yours or my health. The citizens so brainwashed, they think the EPA and ALL other public protection agencies are to inconvenient for the corporations to have to deal with, convinced they should be abolished by the corporations. And Buying it!!! This should not shock anyone with 2 working brain cells! It will only get worse, until the public get educated, to support legislation for the PUBLIC best interest NOT the corporations profits and best interest.

i don’t read everything there is to read on this subject, so there is some new info for me in this article, and i thank propublica for discussing it. and in response to Truetype: pair monsanto with romney, not obama. the former had a strong relationship with monsanto.

Did I miss something,or did this mention the effect of phthalates on men, but not on women?
I agree with Will- more specific information on what kinds of chemicals or products we would try to avoid would be helpful.
What is scarier is that we probably can’t avoid most of these.Why does the U.S. allow so many chemicals that are banned in Europe and elsewhere?
I guess our health isn’t worth much.

OK, so maybe this article was a bit like French food. Good, but leaving some readers hungry for more.

I’m glad to see ProPublica tackle the issue, and I don’t fully agree with the comment that this topic doesn’t play to ProPublica’s strengths. Perhaps that’s the case for the science underlying the issue, but it is not the case with the public policy decisions that allow US consumers to eat things suspected or known to be harmful, many of which are often banned by other nations.

We all know regulatory agencies have a cozy relationship with industry lobbyist that contribute to these decisions. This creates a great need for increased transparency in the area of food, drug, and environmental toxin regulation.  Why not team up with someone like the Environmental Working Group and conduct a deep dive on the politics of how some of these things stay in our food supply?

Larry Simpson, Ph.D

Oct. 12, 2013, 12:49 a.m.

I was born/raised on a farm/ranch in SW Kansas some 69y ago. I recall working at 12 yr old, with my dad and a hired hand in the back of a ‘52 Chevy pickup loaded with sprayer equipment and booms to spray DDT on bineweed which was choking out the nascent crops.  We were literally soaked in the DDT mist. Did it often. Lucky to be alive!

The whole thing is so simple.  Lower all carbohydrates until you consume only about 33 grams a day.  I lost 56 lbs in two years.  If you just honestly keep track of your carbs you will be amazed at how much you eat.  Human physiology textbooks have explained it for years.  Fat in your diet is burned as fuel.  Protein in your diet is used to rebuild your cellular structures.  Carbohydrates are burned as fuel, but the excess are stored as saturated fat.  It is that stored fat that makes you too heavy.

If you want to find out the reasons behind weight gain, see the book by neuro surgeon Dr. Russell Blalock, “Excitotoxins.” It describes the ingrdients that food processors put into the food they sell in order to get us to eat more and the harmful affects they have on our bodies.

for those of you who want more details about specific chemical, I think this is what you’re looking for:

Mary Caulfield

Oct. 14, 2013, 8:28 a.m.

Exitotoxins. That is news to me. I’ll try it.

This article does NOT mention GMOs. So I was surprised to see the Eco-Nazis jump right in. Even if GMOs are not mentioned, they’re to blame anyway. Just like Obama is to blame for everything.

Everybody, do keep in mind that we’re still only at the “correlation” phase of figuring out what’s going on.  Anybody who’s generating a list of chemicals for you to avoid is lying to you.

The science is real, but it’s not at the point where we can finger any element.  With the amount of crap (literally and figuratively) we’re allowed to dump into our food, you’re talking about an obscene number of clinical trials.

If you want to get ahead of it, in a “better safe than sorry” kind of way, stop buying prepackaged foods and cook.  Seriously, it takes less time to put together something like migas than to cook anything out of a box…

Plus, there are other factors for different people.  Sleep deprivation is starting to emerge as a candidate, for example.

The premise that these hormone disrupters are making us fat seems a longshot to me but science could prove it to be a factor someday. The issue of hormone disruptive chemicals though is real and disease causing inflammation and reproductive defects that result is a more important discussion

Please accept this fact: The obesity epidemic began in the 1970s. Look at a crowd photo from pre-1970. They look like a different species.

Some people believe that people began to eat too much, or too much ‘junk’ food’, after 1970. Blame the victim.

Ok. Now make the effort to review the history of the huge increase in enzyme use in food processing. It also began in the 70s and exploded since then.

I find this correlation very convincing. But no one seems to care.

Many of these endocrine disrupting chemicals are zenoestrogens, estrogen mimickers. Estrogen encourages fat storage. That is one of the multiple factors of obesity.


Dear Previous Commenters,  Instead of bitching about the article and/or various aspects of the content therein, how about adding to the information provided instead.

I’m with John…there needs to be far more research, but….who’s doing it? The FDA? Nope. The EPS? Nope. The govt funded third parties? Ehhh, maybe. No matter what, almost any food additive chemical can can be toxic when consumed in heavy enough quantities…but when consumed in low doses over time, cause problems that are going to lead in a undesirable direction. There’s many things this article touched on well…and hormone disruption is one very important detail (do you research on pyrethroids/pyrethrenes). We should still be up in arms that a simple switch from artificial food colors to fruit/veg colors hasn’t been made. Personally, I don’t want my food f#@@$ colored…it looks fine naturally. Why aren’t we talking about propylene glycol and countless other absurd items slipped into every corner of our diets? Why? There’s simply too much out there that’s allowed in the food production chain. Food grade my ass. We should be complaining about the lack of responsibility of a NATION to take interest in what we put inside our bodies in general! Here we are, October…big food’s time of year to tempt every single cell in your body to start the downward trend, then get you to give up a little come Jan 1st. Seriously? Is it that simple that we just forgot how to buy right…cook right…eat right? I’m a professional chef of 18yrs, trained at CIA, and now do botanical studies to find therapeutic alternatives to dangerous pharmaceuticals. I’ve never been so disgusted to see how few quality products our grocery stores have. MORE DOES NOT MEAN BETTER. When I grew up in upstate NY, our grocery selection was small but powerful and healthy. Nowadays, in Northern CA, you’d think I could compare positively to my youth…hardly.

there is more than enough evidence to conclude the American Food chain has been compromised. so the question becomes one of solution. there isn’t going to be one or any.  publishing papers or shouting from the rooftops is not going change anything.  we’re headed fo worse because we are a wholly owned subsidiary of cannibal capitalism. profit over people wins every time.  on the other hand look at the countries who have forbidden these chemicals and frankenfoods. oh yeah, the socialist ones.  and they are being infected and infested by us every minute.  sadly these corporations didn’t choose to kill us, but when they found out they probably were, they said f*&^ it.

Stiffie Fornicatesthedead

Oct. 22, 2013, 9:56 p.m.

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