Toxins in the Food System

Use smart nutrition to mitigate the effects of environmental toxins in the food system.

Opt for fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to limit your exposure to BPA or BPA-alternatives used in the linings of most cans

When you shop for food, prepare a meal, or dine out, you’re probably thinking about nutrition, enjoyment, or both. You might also have concerns about what toxins and chemicals might be in your food. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can reduce your exposure.

What’s in Our Food?

Toxic substances found in food can come from plant, animal, or chemical sources. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical used since the 1950s to harden plastic in baby bottles, toys, and other products. Phthalates are chemicals widely used in personal care products and as softeners in plastics. Contaminants in the soil, air, and water can also make their way into our food. These can include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—currently banned but still lingering in the environment—pesticides from agricultural runoff, arsenic, and heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Concerns and Critical Time Windows

Of major concern are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), including phthalates, BPA, and PCBs, as well as organochloride and organophosphate compounds used broadly in the last century in pesticides and other applications. “Endocrine disrupting chemicals affect the human body and wildlife similar to the way hormones work,” says New Jersey-based integrative medicine physician Aly Cohen, MD, founder of The Smart Human, which helps consumers reduce unsafe chemical exposure. Residues of these substances persist in rivers, oceans, and other areas of the environment, despite being mostly phased out.

Although exposure to EDCs and other toxins affects everyone, their impact is even more harmful during critical developmental stages of life, such as pregnancy, infancy, early childhood, preteen, and teen years, says Cohen.

The Restaurant Connection. A study published in March in Environment International—which used National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data collected from more than 10,000 participants between 2005 and 2014—found that people who consumed more restaurant, fast food, and cafeteria meals had phthalate levels nearly 35 percent higher than people who ate food mostly purchased at the grocery store. Adolescents who had high intake of foods outside the home had 55 percent higher phthalate levels compared to those who only consumed food at home.

Many items used in the production of restaurant, cafeteria, and fast food meals contain phthalates, including take-home boxes, gloves used in handling food, and food processing equipment. Previous research suggests these chemicals can leach into food from plastic containers or wrap.

What Is Being Done?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started measuring human exposure to chemicals in 1976, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlawed BPA in baby products in 2012. Unfortunately, the chemicals that replaced BPA may be just as harmful, according to some research. Some phthalates have also been banned, and research from the University of California, San Francisco found that the levels of these chemicals in urine from a representative sample of the U.S. population are declining.

The USDA’s Pesticide Detection Program consistently shows that overall pesticide residues found on foods tested are below the levels allowed or tolerated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

8 Things You Can Do About Toxins in Foods

Cohen says it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all this daunting news, but it’s important to focus on what you can do. “It makes sense to do simple stuff to reduce your risk,” she says. Here are some top tips:

  1. Cook more at home to reduce exposure to phthalates, using whole or minimally processed foods to reduce food additives and increase nutrition. “When humans are nutrient sufficient, they are better equipped to handle toxin exposure,” Cohen says.
  2. Use safe cooking and storage vessels. Glass, stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramic are your best bets. If you do use plastic containers, don’t use them for hot foods and drinks, and use glass instead of plastic in the microwave.
  3. Eat lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. “There is a large body of evidence to show that compounds in cruciferous vegetables help to support and even enhance the body’s natural detoxification process,” says Seattle-based dietitian Mary Purdy, MS, RDN. These include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, which are best eaten raw or slightly cooked to preserve the beneficial compounds. Compounds in the allium family—leeks, garlic, onions—also aid detoxification.
  4. Include foods rich in the B vitamins, suggests Purdy. These include folate (dark leafy greens, beans, whole grains), B6 (fish, starchy vegetables, most fruits), niacin (poultry, salmon, tuna) and riboflavin (dairy, eggs, lean meat). Cohen points out that one of the B vitamins, folate, has been shown to counteract exposure to BPA.
  5. Eat organic food when possible to reduce pesticide exposure. Organic agriculture is also less likely to contribute to air, soil, and water pollution.
  6. Opt for fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables to limit your exposure to BPA or BPA-alternatives used in the linings of most cans
  7. Limit high-fat animal foods, as some toxic substances can build up in animal fat.
  8. Get adequate fiber and fluids to help your body eliminate waste products in a timely manner.

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

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