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We’re exposed to toxic chemcials in all kinds of ways. One of the biggest and baddest may be through the foods we eat. Recently researchers decided to examine the issue, and they found our smallest family members bearing the largest burden with every bite.
The California project was part of the EPA Study of Use of Products and Exposure-Related Behavior (yes, that ironically spells “SUPERB”), which is exploring how our use of various products affects our exposure to toxic chemicals. Scientists asked families how much of which foods they ate, adjusted for weight, and estimated exposure to 11 common contaminants, including various heavy metals, pesticides, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxins.
What they concluded was that on a pound-for-pound body-weight basis, kids had a sigificantly higher estimated intake than their older family members. Both preschoolers and grade-schoolers were estimated to be consuming contaminants at levels believed to create health effects like cancer, organ harm, and reproductive and neurological damage.
Interestingly, children’s higher exposure levels weren’t related so much to portion size as they were to food choices—kids are more likely to pick and eat foods that carry a higher pollutant burden than the foods other family members are selecting. That’s good news because it means we can help our kids stay avoid contaminants with suggestions like these:
- Keep your menus as natural as you can. The more you avoid processed foods, the more distance you put between your kitchen and unwanted additives, pollutants, and other unappetizing things.
- That’s especially true for fried foods like fries and chips, and baked starchy items like crackers, cereals, and cookies. These are top sources of toxic acrylamide, a natural, if unfortunate, by-product of cooking processes.
- Watch the fish, a leading source of arsenic and mercury. The best options are small species like sardines and anchovies, whose short lifespans limit the amount of metals their bodies absorb. Salmon and scallops are also good choices.
- Limit consumption of rice and rice-based foods. Rice, for reasons that remain mysterious, often contains arsenic. Safer varieties include basmati and jasmine.
- Eat organic produce whenever possible. It’s grown without commercial pesticides. Use the Environmental Working Groups Guide to the most and least contaminated fruits and vegetables to steer your buying priorities. Based on self-reported dietary data, the greatest exposure to pesticides from foods included in the analysis were tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans, and celery.
- Wash conventional produce aggressively before serving.
- Go easy on the meat and dairy, which are key ways we encounter fat-loving POPs like dioxins, PCBs, and pesticides. The more plant-based your plate, the better.
- When you can, pick organic dairy products to further reduce your kids’ risks. Non-organic milk, for example, is a surprising source of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which likely comes from feed and treated pastures.
These tips will help create a diet that doesn’t come with a side order of risk, and that, I think we can all agree, is the only kind we want our hungry families digging into.
Photo: Geoffery Kehrig