A diet rich in whole foods will provide good nutrition, reduce exposure to chemicals in food packaging and help protect the body against routine chemical exposures. We need the food we eat to nurture our body, not harm it. Good nutrition is especially important for pregnant women and young, growing children to develop healthy brains, organs and metabolic systems. Compared with whole foods, packaged and processed foods are nutrient-poor; contain potentially harmful additives; and provide exposure to chemicals in food packaging.
Health Effects of Processed Foods
Health risks from a diet of mostly processed foods include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, all of which are now major public health problems in the U.S. These diseases are referred to as metabolic disorders, associated with inflammation and oxidative stress, which are further aggravated by chemical exposures and other stressors. On the other hand, good nutrition can protect the body from effects of chemical exposure and prevent or mitigate these chronic diseases. For example copper, zinc and selenium are examples of important nutrients that provide resilience against oxidative stress and inflammation, which can adversely impact reproductive health. Other examples are flavonoids, polyphenols in green tea and Omega-6 fatty acids. A well-nourished body will also absorb lower amounts of toxic chemicals, such as lead. Iron deficiency increases lead absorption, while higher calcium levels protect against lead absorption.
Industrialization of the food system and the rise in food processing has increased the use of food additives such as food dyes, sodium, preservatives and sweeteners. The FDA maintains of list of thousands of food additives, which includes those that are FDA-approved as well as those bypassing the approval process because the FDA has designated them as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Synthetic food dyes and other additives are common in foods specifically marketed to children and contribute to hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior. Preservatives such as nitrates are often added to hot dogs and other processed meats popular with children. Finally, we can all do without the added sodium and sweeteners common in packaged food.
Organic, Local, Free-Range and Hormone Free are Better
Fruits and vegetables provide essential minerals, vitamins and fiber that are critical for growing children and pregnant and nursing women. To maximize health benefits, it’s recommended that we eat 3-5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruits each day. Non-organic produce often contains residues of harmful pesticides, levels of which vary depending on the type of produce and how it’s grown. Minimize your exposure to pesticide residues by consuming organic produce whenever possible. Even if you can’t buy all organic, choose fruits and vegetables that have lower residues, so you can enjoy the health benefits of fresh produce.
Organic meats are raised without use of antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, artificial ingredients and growth hormones. If they sound healthier than conventional animal products, they are. For example, beef from grass-fed cattle is leaner, lower in fat and calories, and one study found it lowered “bad” and raised “good” cholesterol. Not everyone has access to an all organic diet, so do the best you can to chose local, free-range, organic, hormone-free and grass-fed animal products whenever possible.
Chemicals in Food Packaging
People are routinely exposed to chemicals in food packaging, including plastics and food container coatings. A variety of petroleum-based chemicals go into the manufacture of plastics. Hormone-disrupting chemicals can leach into food and drinks and impact human health. Leaching increases when plastic comes in contact with oily or fatty foods, during heating and from old or scratched plastic. Most food cans are lined with an epoxy resin that contains toxic bisphenol A, which is known to leach into the food. In addition, we can be exposed to perfluorinated chemcials (PFCs) through Teflon coated cookware and grease resistant food packaging coatings on pizza boxes, fast food wrappers and popcorn bags.
A new study found that recent consumption of fast food was a significant source of exposure to two phthalates – DEHP and DiNP- but not BPA. It’s likely that food is contaminated with phthalates during processing from tubing, lid gaskets, food prep gloves, food packaging materials and other sources. Exposure to hormone disrupting phthalates is associated with adverse effects on the reproductive, neurological and respiratory systems in children.
Simple Tips to Reduce Exposure to Chemicals in Food
It’s possible to reduce your exposure to chemicals in food and food packaging and improve your health by avoiding processed foods and cooking and serving meats, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. There’s evidence that it works. In one study participants that ate an organic, unprocessed and packaging-free diet for three days reduced their body levels of phthalates by over 50% and bisphenol A by over 60%. You can reduce your family’s exposure to chemicals in food by following a few simple tips. See Top Tips for Healthy Kids – Food Choices.
- Hennig B, Ettinger AS, Jandacek RJ et al. Using nutrition for intervention and prevention against environmental chemical toxicity and associated diseases. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115 (4): 493-495.
- Erickson AC, Arbour L. The shared pathoetiological effects of particulate air pollution and the social environment on fetal-placental development. Jrl Environ and Pub. Health. 2014;1-20.
- Wright RO, Tsaih SW, Schwartz J et al. Association between iron deficiency and blood lead levels in a longitudinal analysis of children followed in an urban primary care clinic. J Pediatr. 2002;142: 9-34.
- Schell LM, Denham M, Stark AD et al. Maternal blood lead concentration, diet during pregnancy, and anthropometry predict neonatal blood lead in a socioeconomically disadvantaged population. Environ Health Perspect. 2003;111: 195-200.
- S. Food and Drug Administration. Everything added to food in the United States (EAFUS): A food additive database.
- McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007;370:1560–67.
- Rule, D C et al. Comparison of muscle fatty acid profiles and cholesterol concentrations of bison, beef cattle, elk, and chicken.” J Anim Sci 2002;80 (5): 1202-11.
- Davidson, M H et al. Comparison of the effects of lean red meat vs lean white meat on serum lipid levels among free-living persons with hypercholesterolemia: a long-term, randomized clinical trial. Arch Intern Med, 1999;159(12): 1331-8.
- Zota AR, Phillips CA, Mitro SD. Recent fast food consumption and bisphenol A and phthalates exposure among the U.S. population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environ Health Perspectives, online publication April, 2016.
- Rudel RA, Gray JM, Engel CL, Rawsthorne TW et al. Food packaging and bisphenol A and bis(2-ethyhexyl) phthalate exposure: Findings from a dietary intervention. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011;119:914-920.