We hear so much about toxic compounds that reach our food—Mercury in fish! BPA in food-storage containers! Pesticides on produce!—that it’s easy to become afraid of eating, well, anything. It’s smart to be aware of potentially harmful effects, but it’s also important to keep things in perspective and to remember that there are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Click through to find out what you can do to clean up your kitchen (and your home overall).
From potions that keep bugs from destroying crops to sprays that keep lawns lush, “pesticides” include hundreds of chemicals, many of which have links to health problems, including cancer, so it’s smart to know where they might be found and how to limit your contact with them. Buying organic fruits and vegetables can help reduce your exposure to these chemicals. Yes, that can get pricy, so prioritize your purchases by choosing organic for fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest pesticide residues, such as apples, celery and strawberries. (See the Environmental Working Group’s full list at foodnews.org.)
Growing your own—with organic soil and seeds—can help you reduce your pesticide exposure. If veggies are intimidating, herbs are a great place to start. Herbs like basil, dill and parsley are easy to grow—all you need are some seeds, a pot and a little sun and water. You can enjoy the convenience of fresh herbs at your fingertips, which might also save you some money.
Leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking in pesticides sprayed on lawns, and limit your own use of lawn chemicals, insecticides and rodenticides. Find natural ways to eliminate pests instead.
Consider a water filter certified by the Water Quality Association (wqa.org) or NSF International (nsf.org). Well water can include pesticides from farms and golf courses that leach into well water—and even tap water may contain traces of unregulated pesticides.
Choose those free of synthetic fragrance to avoid phthalates, a group of chemicals that may interfere with the body’s hormone systems. Even products labeled “unscented” may contain synthetic fragrance, so scan the ingredients list and look for the word “fragrance.” Often it’s synthetic. (Some manufacturers of safe natural products list natural fragrances this way, too, so if you’re in doubt, contact the company for more information.) Phthalates are also used to make soft, squishy plastics like those used to package foods, so try to make the bulk of your diet minimally processed fresh foods.
BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical traditionally used to make hard, clear plastics—including food containers, reusable water bottles and some baby bottles—and the resins lining some food cans. It leaches into food when containers are scratched or heated. An easy way to avoid it is to store and reheat food in glass containers instead of plastic ones. Reuse what you have—pasta-sauce jars are great for holding leftovers, for example.
If you use plastic containers or a reusable plastic water bottle, choose BPA-free. (If plastic is labeled with a “7” recycling code and not marked BPA-free, it could contain the chemical.) If you’re not sure whether your plastics have BPA, don’t put them in the microwave and do hand wash them: one study found that plastic bottles released more BPA after they were cleaned in the dishwasher.
Opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables whenever possible. For things like tuna, beans, broth and diced tomatoes, look for BPA-free packaging. Consider making broth and cooking and freezing beans to avoid BPAs that leach into food from food cans or packaging plastic.
Research has suggested that 98 percent of Americans contain trace levels of PFCs (perfluorocarbons), chemicals that are used to repel water, grease and stains. PFCs are found in nonstick cookware, clothing, carpeting, furniture and food containers. Instead of ditching your nonstick pans, save them for cooking over medium or low heat—high heat can cause the release of harmful PFC-containing fumes.
Use wooden or other nonmetal utensils on nonstick cookware to prevent creating scratches on nonstick cookware. Damaged nonstick pans can release harmful PFCs.
Opt for cast-iron (including ceramic-coated) or stainless-steel pots and pans for dishes that require high heat or that require frequent stirring that could unintentionally scratch the surface of nonstick pans.
In high doses, mercury can harm the nervous system, heart, lungs, kidneys and immune system; even in low levels it can affect the brains of young children. The most common exposure to mercury—which is both naturally occurring and man-made—is from eating contaminated fish. Find low-mercury seafood selections using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides at seafoodwatch.org.
If you’re pregnant, nursing or feeding young children, follow the guides from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel; limit albacore tuna to 6 ounces and total seafood to 12 ounces per week. Consult fish advisories issued by your local health department.
Dioxins are environmental pollutants that get into the food supply in low levels. Since they concentrate up the food chain, we’re exposed mostly through meat, dairy, fish and shellfish. Dioxins accumulate in fat, so trim it from meats and poultry and opt for low-fat dairy products. Look for meat from grass-fed animals, which tends to be leaner than meat from animals raised on grains.
Eat from a variety of food groups and include plenty of fruit, vegetables and grains to avoid too much exposure from any given source (e.g., meat, dairy).