While many studies look at a single contaminant, the new research from University of California–Davis studied a broad range of dietary bad actors, such as pesticides, heavy metals, and acrylamide, a naturally occurring compound found in carbohydrate-rich foods cooked at high temperatures, aiming to determine whether children's exposure commonly exceeds the limits considered to be safe.
Eating these environmental toxins is a real and significant concern, particularly for preschool and elementary-school-age children. Researchers found many in these age groups ate the contaminants at levels have known health effects, including cancer, liver toxicity, and damage to the neurological and reproductive systems.
"We have a wide range of contaminants in our food and air and water, and some are of higher concern than others," explains study coauthor Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the University of California–Davis School of Medicine. "In some cases the levels are too low—finding it doesn't necessarily mean there's a risk. That said, there are a number of classes of chemicals that do have known toxicities."
In the case of some foods, meal favorites may go through multiple chemical applications and more dangerous transformations before winding up on your dinner plate. For instance, pesticides are deliberately applied to potatoes and grains—sometimes multiple times—fumigants or anti-sprouting agents may be applied after sprouting for storage, and then acrylamide may form when these foods are prepared at high temperatures.
These food threats pose an even greater risk to children because their bodies and brains are still developing and likely to be affected by these harmful contaminants.
Here are simple ways to clean up your food act.
Be smart about seafood. Sometimes even the healthiest foods have high levels of certain things. In the case of seafood, that's often the brain-damaging heavy metal mercury. "Fish is extremely healthy and provides certain molecules that are really important in brain development," explains Hertz-Picciotto. But she's also quick to point out the flipside: While it's clear that consumption of fish provides essential omega-3 fatty acids provide brain-boosting benefits to children of mothers whose diet includes fish, it's important to avoid species known to contain built-up levels of harmful mercury and PCBs. Opt for tuna with lower levels, such as Wild Planet products, or wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
For more safer picks, check out The 10 Healthiest Fish on the Planet.
Soak your spuds. Since acrylamide typically occurs when carb-rich foods—especially potatoes—are cooked above 248 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers suggest cutting back on processed, carbohydrate-rich foods, particularly crackers, french fries, chips, cakes, breads, and cereal. The good news is preparing some of these foods at home puts you in control and in a position to lower acrylamide levels. For instance, when making homemade fried potatoes, potato chips, or mashed potatoes, try this trick: Before cooking, soak the raw, sliced potatoes in water for 2 hours before frying, to reduce acrylamide by nearly 50 percent; if you're rushed, a 30-second rinse of the sliced spuds reduces acrylamide by more than 20 percent. Or you can microwave the potatoes for 30 seconds before cooking, which slashes levels of acrylamide by 60 percent.
Bonus tip? Since storing potatoes in the refrigerator can result in increased acrylamide during cooking, keep your spuds out of the fridge and instead store in a dark, cool place, like a closet or pantry, to prevent sprouting.
Befriend rosemary. A 2008 Danish study found that adding rosemary, an antioxidant-rich herb, to dough before making wheat buns lowered acrylamide content by up to 60 percent. Even adding just a small amount of rosemary—1 percent of the dough—significantly lowered acrylamide levels. Marinating meat in rosemary also promotes health by lowering levels of the carcinogenic compounds created when meat is cooked at high temps.
Another way to lower levels? When toasting bread, go for a lighter toast (not a dark brown one) to reduce acrylamide levels.
Avoid arsenic in food. You may have heard about arsenic in rice and rice-related products like brown rice syrup sweeteners. Indeed, some reports show that arsenic in rice levels are sometimes higher than what's allowed in drinking water. According to Environmental Working Group researchers, you can reduce your exposure to arsenic in food by practicing these methods:
1. If you're preparing rice, rinse it thoroughly. Rinsing your brown rice with water can lower arsenic levels by 30 to 40 percent! (White rice doesn't hold up to cooking when rinsed well, unfortunately.) Try working alternative grains like quinoa into the mix at meals, too.
2. Limit products listing rice syrup as a sweetener. This natural sweetener could contain higher levels of arsenic due to the grain's natural ability to absorb the compound.
3. Instead of rice cereal as baby's first solid food, try sweet potatoes, squash, bananas, and avocados. For older children and adults, opt for real oatmeal or mixed-grain cereals.
4. Limit certain fruit juices to a maximum of one-half to one cup a day. Why? Orchards used to use arsenic as a pesticide, and it lurks in the ground decades later.
Eat organic. Many food labels lack any substance, but organic is not one of them. Strict rules set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program ban the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, along with human sewage sludge and genetically engineered seeds. And the good news? Eating an organic diet does make a big difference when it comes to keeping pesticides out of kids' bodies. In one study, just a week of switching preschoolers to organic fruits and vegetables caused the metabolites of pesticides in their urine to drop.