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4 scary chemicals in your food (and how to avoid them)

By Nicci Micco, September 16, 2011 - 3:00pm

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4 scary chemicals in your food (and how to avoid them)

How much do you really know about what’s in your food? As an editor for EatingWell Magazine, I know quite a bit, which at times can be unsettling. What do I mean? Well, for example, when I first starting reading about bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make certain plastics, including some used to store food and drinks, I was a little freaked. Science suggests that BPA may disrupt hormones and possibly lead to reproductive problems.

As it turns out, there’s no need to panic. There are simple things you can do to protect yourself against BPA and other toxins, such as pesticides and dioxins, as writer Melinda Wenner Moyer discovered when she set out to rid her diet of toxic chemicals during her pregnancy and write about it for the September/October issue of EatingWell Magazine. (Read the full article on “Going Clean” here.)

Related: Find 7 simple ways to detox your diet and your home.

Working with Wenner on this story prompted me to do a bit of detoxifying myself. Here’s what I ditched (or reduced) in my home:

Reduced: Nonorganic apples.
Why: Pesticides

It’s fall and everyone in my house—right down to my sixteenth-month-old son—is going bonkers for apples. But we try to stick with organic. Why? For one, apples have more pesticide residues than any other fruit or vegetable, according to the Environmental Working Group, and buying organic helps reduce exposure. And with two little ones at home, going organic is even more important: pesticides are particularly harmful to babies and children, who are smaller than adults and growing so quickly. That said, if the only apples available are conventional, I don’t sweat it. Pesticide expert David Wallinga, M.D., once told me that a nonorganic apple is better than no apple at all. (Get more of Dr. David Wallinga's tips on reducing exposure to pesticides on apples here.)
Must-Read: 12 Fruits and Vegetables You Should Buy Organic

Ditched: Fragranced cleaners.
Why: Phthalates

Traditional household cleaners—including dish soaps—that are scented with synthetic fragrances often contain chemicals called phthalates to make their "fresh smells" last longer. Problem is, phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s hormone systems and potentially leading to reproductive abnormalities, problems with fertility and increased risk for diabetes. Opt for those scented with essential oils or nothing at all. “Fragrance-free” or “unscented” on the front of a product sometimes means that the final product doesn’t have an odor; fragrance may have been added to mask another smell. Scan the ingredient list if there is one; if fragrance is listed, it’s often 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.)

Reduced: High-fat protein sources.
Why: Dioxins
More than 90 percent of our exposure to dioxins—a family of chemicals (including some polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) with known cancer-causing properties—comes from meat, dairy, fish and shellfish. It’s largely because these compounds concentrate in animal fat. Opting for low-fat dairy as well as leaner cuts of meat, and poultry and trimming away visible fat, is a good way to reduce your exposure to dioxins. Good to know: meat from grass-fed animals tends to be leaner to start with. (But don't get tripped up by these 5 myths about natural meats.) Of course, including plenty of plant-based sources of protein, such as beans and tofu, like we do at my house, is a smart move too.
Must-Read: 10 Best and Worst Proteins for Your Diet & the Environment

Ditched: Suspect #7 plastics
Reduced: Canned goods not marked BPA-free
Why: BPA
BPA is a chemical traditionally used to make hard, clear plastics—including food containers and reusable water bottles—and is included in the resins that line some cans. In plastics, it leaches into food when containers are scratched or heated. This is a problem, as many scientists are concerned that BPA may be linked with prostate and breast cancer, infertility, heart disease and diabetes. If plastic is labeled with a “7” recycling code and not marked BPA-free, it could contain the chemical. Recently, I went through my kitchen cabinets, looking for plastics with a #7 code. I didn’t find any—but did find items with no code at all. I recycled some of them and put others to use outside of the kitchen as containers for crayons, chalk and extra buttons.
Related: 9 Green Products for a Healthy Kitchen

And while I choose fresh (or sometimes frozen) fruits and vegetables whenever possible, I do frequently buy certain canned foods, including tuna, beans, broth and diced tomatoes. But I’ve started looking for BPA-free options. Instead of buying canned beans, I now (mostly) cook and freeze dried ones. It’s super-easy in my slow cooker. I soak them overnight, rinse and toss in the cooker on High for a few hours. I find that one pound of dried beans makes about the equivalent of three 15-ounce cans.


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TAGS: Nicci Micco, Health Blog

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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