Of all the ways we are exposed to toxic chemicals, one of the biggest is through the food we eat. Our food supply contains a wide array of chemical residues, and is arguably our most persistent source of exposure, especially for those with good water and relatively clean air.
How toxins & chemicals get into the food we eat
There are a number of ways for toxins to enter our food supply:
- Feed and animal care: The feed animals are given and the way they are cared for often exposes them to toxins, which are then absorbed into the flesh that becomes the meat we eat. For example, farmed chickens are often fed arsenic, and almost all non-organic animals are given some type of growth hormones.
- Environmental exposure: Plants and animals eat, drink, and absorb all the toxins we dump into our environment. The most obvious example of this is the contamination in fish, but it affects other animals as well. Our crops, meanwhile, can soak up contaminated water or be exposed to toxins that rain down from the sky, and virtually every plant-based material in our food supply ends up carrying a residue of the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer we use on our fields. Therefore even foods you might not suspect of carrying a toxic burden – such as processed crackers or cereal – can contain varying amounts of toxic residue. For example, in 1994 General Mills was forced to destroy around 50 million boxes of cereal that had been contaminated with chlorpyrifos, after the raw oats used in the cereal had been sprayed with the unapproved pesticide. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 135)
- The production process: Potentially toxic substances can be added to foods in the form of artificial preservatives, flavors, or coloring.
- Packaging: Plastic products are loaded with chemicals like BPA that leech into the food they are containing. (See our chapter on plastics chemicals in section 3.) So even food that emerges from the factory completely clean can end up carrying a chemical residue by the time it reaches consumers.
The types of toxins found in food
The types of toxins found in food reads like a role-call for all the toxins we’ve dumped in our environment, and they are found in a wide variety of food products. A 2006 study by the FDA found perchlorate (an ingredient in rocket fuel) in 74% of the 285 food items tested. (Koch & Weise, 2011) USDA testing in 2003 found nearly all butter samples contained pesticide residues, along with 33.7% of all food items tested. They are of course especially prevalent in fruits and vegetables. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010)
Milk can contain unnaturally high levels of natural hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) as a result of the way cows are kept pregnant through artificial insemination while also lactating. Eating chicken can be a primary source of arsenic exposure, and many meats are contaminated with artificial growth hormones. Even flame retardants make it into the food supply. When Dr. Arnold Schecter pulled 32 items at random off the shelves at 3 different Dallas supermarkets and analyzed them, he found flame retardants in every food that contained animal fats. (ibid, p. 81)
Microwave popcorn contains an additive that can cause lung disease if inhaled, which is really only a problem for factory workers or people who eat a lot of popcorn and make a habit of sniffing it intentionally. And of course, just about everything that comes in a bag, can, or plastic packaging is likely to be contaminated with BPA, phthalates, or other plastics chemicals. For instance, a 2014 review in Environmental Health found poultry contained high amounts of phthalates, likely due to the packaging it came in. (Moeller-Gorman, 2014)
Toxins in the food our children eat
Once again, children typically draw the short end of the stick when it comes to food toxins. This is not only due to their small stature and physiology, but because many of the foods they eat contain high amounts of toxic residues. Kids tend to eat more of the higher exposure fruits and vegetables, consuming 32-times the amount of apple juice per body weight as adults and 16-times as many raisins. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 81)
A study by the EPA found that one-third of the 19 foods children eat the most contained traces of harmful pesticides. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports found that the average jar of meat-based baby food exceeds the EPA’s daily limit for dioxins by more than 100-times. (ibid) The type of food marketed to children also tends to be highly processed and dressed up in vibrant colors, which means that it’s the food most likely to be packed with potentially harmful dyes or nanotoxins.
Food safety regulation
The Food Quality Protection Act allows traces of contaminants in every food item. While this is reasonable, since it would be impossible to avoid any and all contamination, the standards in the U.S. are far less stringent than those that exist for other countries. There’s also very little monitoring. Companies are largely left to police themselves, and except when it comes to randomly inspecting certain imports and food items, they only get involved when a problem arises.