This weekend, thousands of people will descend on Buffalo, New York, for the annual National Buffalo Wing Festival. The main draw at the two-day event? A series of wing-eating contests. But recently,Ã‚Â People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked that pregnant women be banned from the chicken wing-eating competitions, claiming that research links chicken consumption by expecting women to alarming health risks for their unborn babies: namely, smaller penis size in boys and blocked arteries at birth in both sexes.
"Findings published by the Study for Future Families showed that eating poultry during pregnancy may lead to smaller penis size in male infants," says Lindsay Rajt, PETA's associate director of campaigns,Ã‚Â in her letter to Drew Cerza, founder of the National Buffalo Wing Festival. "In addition, eating cholesterol-laden chicken flesh during pregnancy may also increase unborn babies' risk of beingÃ‚Â born withÃ‚Â blocked arteries, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks later in life."
The claims are pretty scaryÃ¢â‚¬”so Women's Health decided to investigate to see if they're legitimate.
Reality Check: Chicken Consumption Isn't Linked to Penis Size The research PETA mentioned from the Study for Future Families didn't look at chicken consumption at allÃ¢â‚¬”it looked at how prenatal phthalate exposure affects boys reproductively in a variety of ways, one of which was penis size. It is true that, according to the Study for Future Families' research, boys born to moms with the highest levels of phthalate exposure (defined as those in the top 25th percentile) were more likely to have shorter penises than those born to moms with the lowest levels of phthalate exposure (those in the bottom 25th percentile).
Why? Phthalates may decrease the amount of testosterone a boy is exposed to in his mother's womb, hindering his reproductive development. This has been linked to a host of issues, such as a higher likelihood of undescended testicles and a smaller anogenital distance (the distance between the anus and the genitals; this measure has been associated with feminization). In rodent studies, prenatal phthalate exposure in males has also been correlated with lower sperm counts later in life and even infertility.
It's scary, yes, but here's the thing: You gain exposure to phthalates in lots of ways, such as when you use certain personal care products, when you eat out of plastic containers, and when you consume anything on the list of many, many foods that contain phthalates, saysÃ‚Â Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., a professor in theÃ‚Â department of preventive medicine at theÃ‚Â Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who conducted the research PETA cites. What's more, chicken doesn't even rank particularly high on the list of foods containing phthalates (spices are actually at the top of the list, according to one German study). "I think any link between eating buffalo wingsÃ¢â‚¬”even by pregnant womenÃ¢â‚¬”and the size of their son's genitals is very tenuous," says Swan.
What About Clogged Arteries? While PETA didn't cite the exact research that inspired this statement, we tracked down an Australian study published in February in the journalÃ‚Â Fetal and Neonatal Edition of Archives of Disease of ChildhoodÃ‚Â that appears to be the basis of this claim. The research found that the children born to overweight or obese women have artery walls about 0.06 millimeters thicker at birth than other children. "This thickening is a measure of early atherosclerosis and is consistent with higher risk of heart attack and stroke in later life," says Michael Skilton, PhD, a senior research fellow at theÃ‚Â Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders in the Sydney Medical School. "It is worthwhile noting that the arteries are not clogged or blocked at this young age."
A mother's cholesterol level during pregnancy is associated with the severity of atherosclerosis in her children's arteries, says Skilton. But the idea that you could give birth to a baby with clogged arteries because you eat a lot of fatty chicken in one sitting is a stretchÃ¢â‚¬”at best. For one thing, dietary cholesterol is a poor indicator of blood cholesterol levels. Furthermore, Skilton'sÃ‚Â study didn't look at the food the women in the study were consumingÃ¢â‚¬”it only looked at the weight of the moms. "Because it is unknown whether competitive eating, undertaken on either a single occasion or on a regular basis, is associated with weight gain, it is impossible to say whether or not our findings concerning maternal obesity are of relevance to the current discussion," says Skilton.
The Takeaway So participating in a chicken wing-eating contest while pregnant may not have such dire health consequences for your baby, but the connection between prenatal phthalate exposure and reproductive issues in males isÃ‚Â disconcerting. If you're looking to limit your exposure, Swan recommends eating organic, unprocessed food whenever possible (since experts suspect processing introduces the phthalates into food), following the Environmental Working Group's suggestions on how to buy safer products, steering clear of plastic containers as much as possible (particularly when they're holding food), and heating up food in glass containers (as opposed to plastic).Ã‚Â "Some plastics are safer than others, but they probably all have some hormonal activity," says Swan, "so I just make a practice of using glass."