Chemicals Lurking in Your Food? Detox Your Diet!

Whether you’re aware of them or not, every day we are exposed to synthetic chemicals in the water and food we consume. For more than a decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been monitoring chemical exposures within the US population, with more than 200 compounds included in their most recent tests.

While we can’t always control these exposures, we can reduce some risks by making informed choices. Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Heath and co-instructor of From Farm to Fork: Why What You Eat Matters, provides the following guidelines.

The three main chemical categories

To begin, let’s think about dietary chemical exposures in three categories:

  • Residues: chemicals, like pesticides, that are left behind as a result of their deliberate use in food production and processing
  • Contaminants: chemicals or toxins, like mercury, that inadvertently enter the food supply via the food chain, supply chain, or your own kitchen
  • Ingredients: chemicals added to food products to impart particular qualities or properties, such as preservatives or dyes in processed foods

What follows are tips to detox your diet and minimize some of these exposures.

Avoiding residues on food

Pesticides are commonly used in conventional agriculture. Unfortunately, residual contamination is also common on the fruits and vegetables we buy in the supermarket. While the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has approved tens of thousands of active ingredients, many unanswered questions remain about their associated health risks. For example, a recent Harvard study showed that children exposed to higher levels of organophosphate pesticides were at increased risk for ADHD. Sight and smell don’t typically allow us to detect these residues, so how can we reduce or avoid exposure? Two options are to go organic (or at least semi-organic) and use some rules of thumb.

Go organic

Organic agriculture uses natural methods for soil enrichment and pest control instead of genetically modified organisms. These methods reduce residues on the produce leaving the farm and cut down on pollution in groundwater and farmland. Recent studies have confirmed that switching from conventional to organic produce can reduce your dietary exposure to pesticides.

Go semi-organic

The premium cost of organic has declined a bit in recent years, but if the added cost is an issue, you can still make informed choices in the conventional bin. Each year, the Environmental Working Group  publishes the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The fruits and vegetables tested with the highest and lowest levels end up on their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, respectively.

  • Tip #1: Focus your organic dollars on purchases from the Dirty Dozen and save a few bucks by purchasing conventional produce from the Clean Fifteen. It’s not a guarantee that levels will be low, but the odds are better.
  • Tip #2: Print the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists and keep them in your wallet as a reference when you shop.

You can also use these other rules of thumb for shopping and eating:

  • Contamination can be skin deep: Since some residues are on the surface only, go organic when you will be consuming the entire fruit, skin and all (strawberries and apples). If the fruit has a thick skin or peel that is discarded (bananas and pineapples), go conventional.
  • Wash the bad stuff away: Thoroughly washing produce can reduce (not eliminate) some surface residues.
  • Mix it up: Eating a variety of produce from different sources will limit the possibility of high exposure from a vegetal hot-spot.  

The thing not to do is avoid fruits and vegetables because of chemo-phobia. Focus on the benefits that these foods impart and try to reduce the avoidable risks through your sourcing.

Avoiding contaminants

Sometimes chemicals find their way into the food chain and to your dinner plate because of environmental pollution. Did you know that much of the mercury in seafood originates in power plants that burn coal? This airborne mercury is dispersed in the environment and bioaccumulates via food chains that can end up in commonly consumed seafood.

Fish can be an excellent source of protein and healthy omega-3 fats, and you can avoid the species with high levels of mercury by consulting consumer guides from the Natural Resource Defense Council and National Geographic.

On the way to your fork, many food products have passed through supply chain processing and packaging facilities that can contaminate our food with low levels of synthetic chemicals. For example, in a recent dietary intervention study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, families who avoided processed food for three days reduced their exposure to two suspected endocrine disruptors: a phthalate (DEHP) and bisphenol A (BPA).

Phthalates are commonly used to soften plastics (like vinyl) in some food packaging and in many personal care and consumer products. Most recently BPA has also been found in the resins used to line some canned foods.

Where possible in your home and kitchen, store food in glass containers, and avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers, especially fatty foods that can easily absorb chemicals that may leach from plastics. Keep any products that contain chemicals, like surface cleaners, away from your food.

Avoiding problematic ingredients

Heavily processed foods contain more synthetic chemicals like dyes, preservatives, and artificial flavors. The list of these chemicals currently on supermarket shelves is long, while the research on their health effects is limited. We know that some people have allergic responses to individual compounds, but more serous health effects have been suggested.

Bottom line: Limit your exposure to processed foods and maximize the whole and natural foods in your diet. As Michael Pollan has said, “Avoid foods that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

If you haven’t already panicked, don’t

Become an informed consumer. Avoiding chemical exposures should not necessarily be your primary focus in making your dinner decisions. A healthy, balanced diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits, favors whole grains over processed grains, limits animal products, and includes healthy fats. But I’ll leave the healthy diet advice to my Farm to Fork co-instructor Dr. P.K. Newby, who has covered many of these issues in her blog, Play a Good Knife and Fork.