As ubiquitous as chemical contamination is in our environment, we often don’t think about our food supply as carrying a high chemical load. But it can—and does. Much of this is added through industrial farming methods, food processing and packaging. Not all of food contamination comes from these industrial activities, however, and awareness can go a long way toward protecting yourself and your family from exposure.
Fortunately, you can flip the switch to have a healthier diet to reduce your chemical exposure. Here are 10 of the most contaminated foods in your refrigerator that you should throw away right now—and healthy alternatives.
We all know the look of the plastic mustard squeeze bottle that is an iconic image of convenience food in the U.S., a mainstay of backyard barbeques and picnic tables.
Also: Processed foods and drinks (including unexpected ones, such as cheap beer).
Chemicals of Concern: Food dyes, preservatives, chemicals to adjust textures, emulsifiers, natural and artificial flavorings, plasticizers.
The problem: Concerns include cancer, ADHD and gut-health disruption. Environmental Working Group has a thoughtful discussion of 12 harmful additives and how to avoid them.
Simple switch: Choose food and drinks without chemical additives. Look for artisan producers.
Tips: Shop at health food stores, read labels, call companies for ingredients when labels don’t list additives and eat real food.
2. Unfiltered and/or bottled water and drinks
Water is a solvent so it is especially important that we store it in inert containers such as glass or stainless steel.
Also: Juice, soda, other drinks stored in polycarbonate, other plastic, or aluminum cans (as in seltzer); unfiltered water.
Chemicals of concern: Packaging containing bisphenol-A (BPA) (polycarbonate), plastics, aluminum; ground water and municipal water contaminants; #1 Polyethylene terephthalate, PET or PETE (disposable soft drink, juice, water bottles; resins can contain flame retardants; aseptic packaging); #2 HDPE (cloudy milk and water jugs); resins can contain flame retardants, #3 PVC (some soft beverage bottles contain PVC); #7 Polycarbonate (a plastic that contains BPA).
The problem: Water and drinks can be contaminated from chemicals such as BPA leaching out from the packaging, causing endocrine disruption; long–lasting chemicals stored in fat; carcinogens. It is hard to imagine any groundwater system in the world that isn’t contaminated, and municipal water filters a range of chemicals but not all and includes additives. Filtering water is the safest approach.
Simple switch: Drink filtered water and natural drinks stored in glass.
Tip: Note that BPA-free bottles does not mean they are free from endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's popular Roundup herbicide, has contaminated a wide swath of the U.S. food supply.
Also: Bread and wheat cereal; GMO foods such as soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, dried legumes, sorghum, grains, and seeds.
Chemicals of concern: Glyphosate “Roundup Ready” herbicide.
The problem: Glyphosate has been reported in scientific reviews to have a negative impact on gut health and cause gluten intolerance and even celiac disease. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen." Many non-GMO grains, seeds and legumes receive a dose of Roundup immediately prior to harvest—a process know as desiccation.
Simple switch: Choose organic, non-GMO labeled foods.
Tips: Look for the “Non-GMO” label or make your bagels at home with organic ingredients.
4. Cheese in plastic packaging
Plastic tends to migrate into fatty foods, especially hot fatty foods, leaching endocrine disruptors.
Also: Other foods and leftovers packaged or stored in plastic, especially hot fatty foods (such as those heated in plastic a microwave)
Chemicals of concern: Leaching plasticizers such as phthalates and BPA; #1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) (disposable soft drink, juice, and water bottles; boil-in-a-bag foods, aseptic packaging); #2 High density polyethylene HDPE (tubs for butter and other dairy products); #3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (meat wrap, bottles for salad dressing); #4 low density polyethylene LDPE (cling wrap, sandwich bags, plastic squeeze bottles); #5 polypropylene (PP) (cloudy plastic water bottles; yogurt cups and tubs; food packaged hot, such as syrups; #6 polystyrene (PS) (disposable hot beverage cups and plates, clamshell take-out containers; egg cartons); #7 polycarbonate (hard plastic such as baby bottles, some reusable water bottles; stain-resistant food storage containers).
The problem: Almost all plastic products, including those advertised as "BPA-free," have been found to leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are implicated in the precipitous rise in breast and prostate cancer as well as ADHD and other cognitive disorders.
Simple switch: Store in glass.
Tips: Make sure you don’t take cheese in plastic on picnics when the weather is warm. Stock up on glass food containers or stainless steel for children’s lunches and snacks when glass containers could be dangerous.
5. Take-out leftovers
Many food wrappers and takeout containers have high resulting fluorine, an indicator of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), a chemical similar to Teflon.
Also: Polystyrene, paper coated with Teflon-like chemicals, plastic containers.
Chemicals of concern: #6 polystyrene (PS) may leach styrene; plastic migration into food from plastic containers; PFC.
The problem: Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, industrial chemicals stored in fat, neurotoxic chemicals in polystyrene, Teflon-like chemicals that are long-lasting in the environment and our bodies.
Simple switch: Glass; food-grade butcher’s paper.
Tip: California is the first state to ban PFCs.
6. Spaghetti sauce cooked in aluminum/non-stick pans and/or from cans
Chemicals from the pans you cook with can leach into your food. Acidic foods such as tomato sauce are especially prone to leach chemicals from pots and cans.
Also: Anything cooked in non-stick or aluminum pans, canned food.
Chemicals of concern: Aluminum, perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), BPA and other plasticizers.
The problem: Aluminum and/or non-stick pan PFOA contamination migrating into food. PFOA is long lasting in the body and is a likely carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, plasticizers are widely known to be endocrine disruptors, aluminum can accumulate in the brain with unknown consequences.
Simple switch: Cook in inert pans/materials, such as glass, baked enamel and stainless steel.
Tip: Anodized aluminum cookware has placed a hard, non-reactive surface over the aluminum, blocking the leaching. Because a can’s label says it is BPA-free doesn’t mean the replaced plasticizer isn’t an endocrine disruptor.
Ocean water carries a lot of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxic mercury, and they find their way into the bodies of fish. The more long-lived and high on the food chain, the more toxic the fish can be.
Also: Shark, king mackerel, tilefish, northern pike, marlin, tuna, imported Mahi Mahi, Atlantic and Pacific cod, Atlantic halibut.
Chemicals of concern: Mercury, heavy metals.
The problem: Mercury and other heavy metals are highly toxic to the peripheral nervous system and have a negative effect on the digestive and immune system; they can cause heart problems.
Simple switch: Track the healthiest fish to eat at Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Tip: As coal-fired plants are being reduced in number, the amount of mercury found in tuna, for example, is dropping. Track the progress at seafoodwatch.org.
Heavy industrial farm spraying leaves residues on fruit and vegetables.
Also: Spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, cherries, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet bell and hot peppers. (This list is from the May 2017 “Dirty Dozen” report by the Environmental Working Group.)
Chemicals of concern: Pesticides, herbicides.
The problem: Neuorotoxic, carcinogenic.
Simple switch: Buy organic.
Tip: Buy foods from the list of the safest “Clean Fifteen” non-organic foods.
9. Full-fat milk
Animals high on the food chain can have high concentrations of industrial chemicals stored in their fat. Humans are at the top of the food chain.
Also: Other foods high on the food chain, such as beef, pork, chicken, fish, and other dairy.
Chemicals of concern: PCBs (insulators and coolants), PBDEs (flame retardants), dioxin and DDT.
The problem: The chemicals are long-lasting in the environment and in our bodies. They can cause cancer, liver damage, birth defects, reproductive disorders and more, depending on the contaminant.
Simple switch: As often as you can, eat low on the food chain, such as organic produce, grains and legumes.
Tip: Prioritize a plant-based, low-fat diet.
10. Peeled garlic cloves from China
While sometimes difficult to isolate, much produce from China is heavily contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
Also: Other foods imported from China have a strong probability of lead and heavy metal contamination; even so-called “organic” foods imported from China deserve scrutiny.
Chemicals of concern: Heavy metals such as lead.
The problem: Lead is very neurotoxic and can lower the IQ, heavy metals can cause a host of health problems including to the heart.
Simple switch: Buy U.S.-grown organic produce.
Tip: Country of Origin labeling is complex. Check out this excellent overview from the American Frozen Food Institute.
Protecting your health and the health of your family from the chemical assault of industrialized agriculture and toxic food packaging can seem daunting. But if you follow these simple tips, you're well on your way to becoming more aware of what kinds of foods to stay away from, and what kinds to buy. You'll soon find that keeping the toxic stuff out of your kitchen and home will become second nature.