comscoreExposure to Chemicals in Food

Exposure to Chemicals in Food

There's a real concern that pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones used on crops and livestock may cause health problems in people, including an increase in breast cancer risk. There are also concerns about mercury in seafood and industrial chemicals in food and food packaging.

Pesticides are used in many commercially grown fruit, vegetable, and grain crops to protect them from insects, weeds, fungi, diseases, mice and other animals, bacteria, viruses, and mold. In the United States, pesticide use is regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Similarly, antibiotics and other drugs are used to protect livestock from diseases and parasites. Extra hormones may be given to animals to increase meat and milk production. In the U.S., use of these drugs is regulated by the FDA.

By getting rid of disease sources, pesticides and antibiotics help increase food production, reduce food loss, and keep the U.S. food supply safe from threats. But many people question how safe these chemicals and hormones are in the body. They worry about the pesticide residues found in fruits and vegetables and in animal feed — which can end up in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products, on top of any extra antibiotics or hormones. There's a real concern that these chemicals may cause health problems, including an increase in breast cancer risk. There are also concerns about mercury in seafood and industrial chemicals in food and food packaging.

No studies so far show a direct connection between pesticide exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer in people. Still, young female farm workers are at higher risk for a range of medical conditions. And some of the most commonly used pesticides have been shown to mimic estrogen in laboratory animals. For example, Atrazine, commonly used to grow corn, can increase estrogen production by turning on the aromatase enzyme. So the "better safe than sorry" principle makes sense here. And common sense suggests that eating extra chemicals is probably unhealthy. The question remains: What is the safest way to grow and prepare fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish so you get the most nutritional value and avoid any risks?


Steps you can take

Consider buying organic. To reduce your exposure to pesticides, you might want to buy organically grown food or organically produced dairy products. The term "organic" means plant crops have been grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers or genetic modifications. "Organic" also refers to meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products raised/produced without being fed growth hormones or extra antibiotics when they're healthy. These organic foods come from animals that have been fed organic grain and other feed.

It's important to know the terms "natural" and "organic" do not mean the same thing. "Natural" is overused and has very little meaning when it comes to industry standards. Similarly, "free-range" doesn't have an official industry definition. Many people believe it means that the chickens or cows or turkeys are not kept in cages and are given the run of the farm. But this isn't always the case. Until the word is officially defined, "free-range" can be put on any package without anyone being responsible for it. If you're very concerned about this issue, look into buying your meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products from a local farmer whose production methods you know. "Pure," "simple," and "real" also sound great but have no official meaning.

While there are reasons to believe organically produced food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally produced food, few studies have been done to confirm this claim. More research is needed in this area.

For more information on organic food, visit the Nutrition and Breast Cancer Risk Reduction pages in the Nutrition section.

Organic cost considerations. Organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic food. Still, eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is much better than not eating fruits and vegetables because you can't buy organic produce. If you're on a tight budget and don't have the luxury of buying all organic, there are ways you can stretch your organic food dollars.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental health advocacy organization based in the United States. The EWG analyzes pesticide studies and ranks contamination on 45 of the most popular fruits and vegetables in the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides. The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides makes it easier to decide what to buy organic.

"The Dirty Dozen" are the 12+ most contaminated fruits and vegetables according to the EWG analysis, so you may want to consider buying these organic if you can:

  • strawberries

  • spinach

  • nectarines

  • apples

  • grapes

  • peaches

  • cherries

  • pears

  • tomatoes

  • celery

  • potatoes

  • sweet bell peppers

  • hot peppers

"The Clean 15" are fruits and vegetables that are likely to have little contamination, so you may want to buy non-organic types of these foods if cost is an issue:

  • avocados

  • sweet corn

  • pineapple

  • cabbage

  • onions

  • sweet peas - frozen

  • papayas

  • asparagus

  • mango

  • eggplant

  • honeydew

  • kiwi

  • cantaloupe

  • cauliflower

  • broccoli

You can see how the EWG ranked all the fruits and vegetables on the Full List page.

Other tips to include more organic food in your diet:
  • Don't rush into buying all your groceries organic. Buying all organic food could add up to be expensive. Think about the foods you eat the most. Stretch your dollars by buying those organic while you figure out your organic grocery budget.

  • Become familiar with what your supermarket has. Most large supermarkets carry some private label organic foods. Ask whether today's prices are typical and if there are ever sales, and see what the differences are between stores. Bring the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists to help you select which foods to buy organic and which ones are OK to buy from conventional sources.

  • Frozen organic produce is often cheaper. Check your grocery store's freezer section for lower-cost organic fruit (especially berries) and vegetables.

  • Buy small quantities of organic food at a time. Organic food generally spoils faster than regular food, which has been treated with preservatives and pesticides.

  • Buy dried grains and legumes. Rehydrating dry beans is cheaper and probably safer than canned beans (the lining of most food cans is coated with a resin containing bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical that can interfere with estrogen in your body).

  • Consider food co-ops if there's one in your area. Food co-ops are worker- or customer-owned businesses that aim to sell the highest quality groceries to their members. Co-ops can be retail stores or buying clubs. Co-ops often feature local and organic produce. You can search for a food co-op near you at the Local Harvest website.

  • Shop at farmers' markets. At farmers' markets, farmers from your area are selling their products directly to you and can answer any questions you have. Farmers may or may not be certified organic, but they can tell you about their farming methods. Some farmers' markets accept Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, federally funded programs that provide food to pregnant women, children, and low-income people. Search for farmers' markets near you at the Local Harvest website or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's site, which also allows you to search for markets that accept WIC and SNAP benefits.

Wash and peel your produce. You also might want to wash your produce with a commercial produce wash or spray — it may help remove some soil and pesticides. These washes are usually available in the produce section of your grocery store and are commonly made from citrus, corn, and coconut. A simple vinegar and water wash also works. Peeling also removes pesticide residues on the skin or rind. But washing and peeling don't remove pesticides inside the fruit or vegetable.

Choose healthy seafood. You're probably familiar with warnings about not eating certain types of fish or not eating too much fish per week because of concerns about mercury and other pollutants. If you choose your fish carefully, the health benefits of eating fish (omega-3 fatty acids) outweigh the risks. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit organization founded in the United States in 1967 by a group of scientists, analyzed contaminants in fish. The EDF ranks the following seafood as safe for everyone to eat 4 or more times per month:

  • anchovies

  • clams

  • cod (Atlantic)

  • crab (Dungeness, U.S. king, and snow)

  • crawfish (U.S.)

  • haddock (trawl)

  • herring (Atlantic)

  • lobster (U.S./Maine)

  • mackerel (Atlantic)

  • mussels (blue)

  • oysters (farmed)

  • red porgy (U.S.)

  • salmon (canned)*

  • sardines

  • scallops (bay, farmed)

  • shrimp (pink, Oregon)

  • shrimp/prawns (imported)

  • squid

  • tilapia

*The lining of most food cans is coated with a resin containing bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical that can interfere with estrogen in your body. You may want to ask the manufacturer if their can linings contain BPA.

The EDF Seafood Selector page offers safe consumption information on a number of other types of fish. Additional resources include Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the Marine Stewardship Council.

Trim fish fat. Chemicals can build up in fish fat, so trim the fat and skin from fish before cooking it. The fat is the spongey stuff under the skin and the brown streak of "meat" in the middle and bottom of fish filets.

— Last updated on July 27, 2022, 1:48 PM

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