Nutrition science is confusing. How many almonds will prevent heart disease but not cause weight gain? Can I meet my nutrient needs by eating a salad every day? Is skim or whole milk better? The questions are endless, and that’s just when it comes to food and how our bodies digest it.
However, I know I am not alone in also considering how environmental exposures might impact the “healthfulness” of foods. Thinking about arsenic, pesticides, fertilizers, and additives can make a person crazy. Then trying to consider how our food habits affect the health of the planet… oy.
Balancing these variables can feel like choosing between “less-bad,” “probably better,” and “not terrible.”
This is, in part, because we lack consistent and reliable information to judge these parameters: The long-term safety of chemicals inside and outside our food is usually not tested well enough to provide clear answers for consumers. Long-term scientific studies on lifestyle habits like food consumption, materials we eat out of, and what we put on our skin are very difficult to conduct because compliance tends to be low and controlling variables is difficult. For a deeper dive into the shortcomings of such studies, check out this podcast episode from Freakonomics—a show devoted to analyzing data and human behavior.
Because of a these data shortcomings (and the small matters of preference and habit), I consider food choices to be a gray area: For anyone who has ever asked me a question about nutrition, you may know that I give few black or white answers. In other words, this article is not going to tell you what to buy to prevent disease, to support perfect farming, or to completely avoid harmful chemicals—sorry!
What I will do is provide a larger context within which to make decisions and to identify low-hanging fruit that can have the greatest impact.
One slice of pizza or super-sized cheeseburger does not instantly make a healthy person over-weight and disease-ridden. Similarly, the foods, chemicals, and environment to which we expose our bodies have a compounding effect.
Here are some things you can do about it:
1. Make sure your water is safe
The quality of the water you drink every day is probably more important than the type of apple (organic, local, GMO, etc.) that you eat occasionally. If your main water source comes from a city or town, reports are published annually that detail its components. Help deciphering such reports can be found here. In general there should be no issues with the safety of town or city tap water, as the EPA has the ability to enforce standards of quality. Any concerns about the taste of municipal tap water are usually well-controlled with a pitcher, faucet, or bottle filter (or infuse with fresh fruit!).
Well water in this area can contain arsenic and radon, so it is important to test your well every 3-5 years and take corrective action if needed. For more information, check out the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program’s new website as well as these NHDES resources.
Think bottled water is a safer choice? Maybe not. Some bottled water, in fact, is tap water. While this may be a rip-off if you believe you’re drinking spring water from an idyllic mountain somewhere, at least it’s being regulated … unlike the actual spring water, which may not be. The FDA oversees bottled water like a food product and has little authority to conduct inspections or to hold companies accountable to do so themselves.
Bottled water is not subject to mandatory testing
and may contain levels of minerals or contaminants
that are not permitted in municipal tap water.
Then there is the added question of plastic packaging of water bottles: While the jury is out on the potential danger of plastic to humans, there is no doubt that the current load of disposable plastic is toxic to the planet. Last, but not least: Bottled water is definitely more expensive than the alternatives. You’ll help your wallet, the planet, and be just as safe by choosing (tested well or municipal) tap water over bottled water.
2. Choose carefully the foods you eat frequently
Eating a variety of foods in moderation is important not only to receive a proper distribution of vitamins and minerals, but also to maintain a healthy micro biome and to protect against any harmful attributes of particular foods. For example, as identified by Dartmouth’s Arsenic and You website, brown rice contains levels of arsenic that would be concerning for someone who eats it frequently, who might also consume brown rice syrup in granola bars and rice cereals on a regular basis. Their advice? No need to avoid brown rice altogether, as it is an otherwise healthy food, but you should vary grain intake to include things like quinoa, amaranth, millet, and buckwheat (all gluten-free).
Another example is mercury in seafood: While the benefits of seafood far outweigh the risks, you may want to vary your seafood choices to mitigate exposure. Larger catch is more likely to contain toxic metals. For example, species most likely to contain high levels of mercury are King mackerel, marlin, swordfish, and ahi tuna. Sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids just like salmon, but are so small that they have less time to accrue toxins in their lifespan. Since each fish may be different, rotating the type you eat can help protect you from harmful levels. More on fish buying here.
3. Think about your skin
It’s the largest organ in the body, and certain compounds may be absorbed from the skin into your body. As with food additives, we cannot count on regulation to protect consumers from new or un-tested ingredients: The FDA “oversees the multi-billion-dollar-a-year cosmetics industry but it lacks the power to approve products or ingredients before they hit store shelves, even though their contents have been shown to enter the body” (Scientific American). The ingredients in beauty products are “basically unregulated.” According to Scientific American, the E.U. has banned thousands of chemicals that are still used in cosmetic products the U.S.
What to do about it? Although reading labels is helpful, some ingredients that are safe may seem unfamiliar, and the list of possible ingredients may be too long to keep track of. Individual company websites are very helpful, as those with stellar ingredients will generally break them down for you. Badgerbalm.com, drbronner.com, and seventhgeneration.com are helpful if those are products you buy on a regular basis (or might consider doing so after reading this).
The Environmental Working Group [EWG] and the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics both publish lists of chemicals to avoid, and The Good Guide, EWG’s Skin Deep Database, Think Dirty, and other resources can help to verify the safety of purchases based on the available evidence.
4. Wash your produce
This cannot protect you from all kinds or quantities of pesticides, herbicides, or microorganisms, but it certainly can’t hurt. Remember to wash fruits like bananas, melons, lemons, and limes: Even though you won’t eat the peel itself, utensils and hands can spread things into edible areas. Fightbac has more information on proper food handling techniques.
Consider buying locally. We are fortunate to live in a region with many small, local producers who are open and honest about their pest management and farming practices. If you are unsure about a product or food that you buy on a regular basis, always ask- you can probably find them at a local farmer’s market this summer!
Asking questions of your local farmer has a twofold benefit: First, you’ll be more informed about the food you’re eating. Second, the issues that are important to local consumers will become known to the farmer. The same goes for the Co-op: The more questions and comments we receive, the more we can adjust our offerings to meet the needs of our shoppers and members.
5. Eat fresh
Fruits and vegetables contain anti-oxidants that are beneficial to the plants, just as they are beneficial to the humans who eat them. As these foods sit in the fridge, however, they use their own anti-oxidants to protect against the harmful effects of aging. By the time we eat a wrinkled blueberry, some of the compounds that would have protected us have been used up. Buying foods more often and in smaller quantities can help to preserve their health-promoting compounds and may also help save you money if food stays out of the trash!
The Good News?
Many changes you can make to your diet in the name of preserving human health will also positively impact the health of the planet. For example, eliminating disposable water bottles and rotating your fish choices will both help to reduce waste from our food system.
Without giving you too many details to worry about, I hope these suggestions have provided a larger framework to assess the safety of what goes in your mouth and on your skin, while also providing specific suggestions. Focus on those choices that have the greatest impact, and remember that even small changes can have a positive effect. If you have questions, you can always reach me at the email provided below.