Buying more than you bargained for

People are seemingly more and more concerned with what goes into their bodies. The diet craze began decades ago with the release of everything from dieting books to pills to yoga classes, all promising a healthier lifestyle. Proposition 37 strove to educate consumers about genetically modified foods and where they come from. One would think that the health-savvy consumer would know about what they are eating, but according to a recent study done by researchers at UC Davis and UCLA, there is more to our groceries than meets the eye.

“Contaminants get into our food in a variety of ways,” said principal investigator of the study Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC Davis, in a press release. “They can be chemicals that have nothing to do with the food or byproducts from processing. We wanted to understand the dietary pathway [that] pesticides, metals and other toxins take to get into the body.”

In the study, researchers at UC Davis and UCLA honed in on foods with high levels of contaminants and measured the exposure in adults and children. Arsenic, dieldrin, DDE (a DDT metabolite), dioxins and acrylamide were among the different toxins examined in the study.

According to Marc B. Schenker, professor in UC Davis Public Health Sciences, symptoms of arsenic exposure include difficulty concentrating, decrease in energy, decrease in appetite and hair loss, most of which correlate with a variety of disorders making exposure hard to detect. The other toxins are connected to cancer and developmental disabilities.

“Cancer is not the only health impact of exposure to foodborne toxins,” said Rainbow Vogt, lead author of the study. “Exposure to pesticides, metals and persistent organic pollutants in our environment has also been linked to reproductive toxicity, hormone dysfunction, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, neurological impairment and behavioral problems.”

The individuals with the higher exposure to the foodborne toxins were young children around 4 or 5 years old. Pesticide and persistent organic pollutant exposure was high in tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans and celery, but the mechanisms by which the toxins get into food are less obvious.

“Pesticides are used on the [crops] which are fed to an animal, [such as] a cow,” said Takayuki Shibamoto, professor in the UC Davis Environmental Toxicology department. “Then people eat the meat … [ingesting] very, very small amounts of [toxins].”

Vogt also said that often toxins bioaccumulate, meaning toxin concentrations increase the further up the food chain the product goes. Even with fresh fruit, it is best to rinse before consuming it.

Although there is no way as a consumer to check for toxins in food items, there are ways to reduce exposure. Eating organic foods will reduce pesticide exposure, and reducing meat consumption will reduce exposure to organic pollutants. Also, as a general rule, it is better to consume grains and fish lower on the food chain, meaning it has not been processed — processing is where much of the contaminants originate from. Tortilla chips and pre-cut French fries, for example, have acrylamide, a carcinogen that is also found in cigarette smoke.

“In addition to food, we are exposed to environmental pollutants from a number of sources including personal care products, household products and cleaning products,” said Vogt. “I recommend being an educated consumer by becoming informed about ways to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors like BPA and flame retardants, in addition to pesticides.”

A few ways to lower exposure to toxins, in addition to eating organic foods and lowering consumption of animal foods, are to reduce the use of plastics — especially in the kitchen — and to improve air quality by dusting and vacuuming frequently. Reducing the use of plastic in the kitchen is important because when plastic cookware is heated or burned, toxic fumes are released into the air and can be inhaled. Keeping houseplants and opening windows can also improve indoor air quality.

Eating healthy is important, and by no means does this study label all vegetables, fruits and meat as toxic appetizers. Shibamoto commented saying that people should be more worried about the lipids in meat than pesticides and the like. People should just be aware of these substances in their food and take precautions to avoid any long-term exposure.

So while it is not necessary to go on a drastic organic-only diet or wash your fruits vigorously, there is a lot of truth to the saying, “Be careful about what you put into your mouth; you don’t know where it has been.”

NICOLE NOGA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Nov. 28 to reflect accurate information.

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