Food, food packaging and cookingHow to avoid endocrine disruptors
Food consumption is the most common way that we are exposed to harmful chemicals. This is because we can come into contact with endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) through the food we eat, the packaging it’s sold in, and the ways we store and cook food.
But you can make your shopping, kitchen and meal times safer by choosing well. Here we look at how to reduce your risk of exposure to endocrine disruptors in food and food packaging, storage and cooking.
Avoiding endocrine disruptors in food
Many types of food can contain EDCs. This can be a result of the way they are produced – such as when farmers use chemical pesticides on apples. Or it can be a result of environmental conditions – for example, when fish ingest pollutants in the sea.
It would be difficult to avoid all sources of harmful chemicals in foods. But it’s a good idea to consider how much of the following you eat:
• Meat (particularly fatty meat) and certain types of fish
• Cheese and other dairy products
• Processed foods
• Fruit and vegetables grown using chemical pesticides (i.e. non-organic produce).
Reduce your risk of exposure to chemicals in food by choosing organic fruit and veg, lean meat, and fish with the lowest toxic chemical content.
Eat lower down the food chain
Through a process known as bioaccumulation, harmful chemicals can be stored in the fat cells of animals and passed up the food chain. The higher up the food chain you eat, the greater the concentration of chemicals you may be exposed to when eating fatty tissue. Eating lower down the food chain can reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Eat less meat and dairy products
Bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals in animals means that you may be exposed to toxic chemicals when you eat meat. Reducing or eliminating your consumption of meat can therefore reduce your exposure.
Harmful chemicals build up in fat cells, so if you do eat meat you may be able to reduce your exposure by choosing leaner cuts of meat or by cutting off excess fat.
EDCs can also be present in dairy products such as milk and cheese, as some of these chemicals build up in the milk of animals. Reducing your consumption of these products can reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Choose fish with the lowest toxic chemical content
Fish, particularly oily fish, can help brain development. But oils in fish can also contain high levels of harmful chemicals that have built up and been stored in the fish tissues (bioaccumulated). Larger fish that are higher up the food chain eat other smaller fish. They are therefore more likely to contain harmful chemicals. So you can reduce your exposure by choosing fish lower down the food chain, such as sardines or anchovies.
Mercury contamination is common in fish in the form of methylmercury. It is particularly harmful. Exposure to mercury in children’s early development has been linked to impaired brain development and IQ.
Pregnant and nursing women and young children are advised to limit their intake of certain species of fish. These tend to be species that are long-lived and higher up the food chain – such as shark, swordfish, pike, tuna, hake, tilefish and king mackerel. If you’re buying tuna, for example, light tuna and line- and pole-caught fish are likely to have lower mercury content.
Where the fish is sourced from can also affect the level of harmful chemicals it contains, as some seas are known to be more polluted than others. For example, fish from the Atlantic Ocean has lower concentrations of persistent chemicals than fish from the Baltic, Mediterranean and North seas.
Eat less fast food
Fast food has been found to contain high levels of harmful chemicals such as phthalates. A US study found that the more take-aways people ate, the more phthalates there were in their bodies.
Fast-food packaging is also a source of exposure to harmful chemicals.
Processed foods may contain more harmful chemicals than fresh foods, as chemical additives are added during the production process.
Eating fresh, home-cooked food can therefore reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.
Eat organic fruit and vegetables
Farmers commonly use pesticides to protect crops and kill insects, weeds and fungi. Pesticide residues can stay on produce all the way to the fruit bowl or dinner plate. Some pesticides in use today are hormone disruptors or have been linked to certain cancers.
Washing fruit and vegetables in clean water can help remove residues from the surface of produce; and peeling will avoid chemicals embedded in the skin of fruits and vegetables. But some pesticides are absorbed throughout a plant, including the parts we eat – so washing and peeling are not always enough.
The best way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to switch to organic food. If fruit, vegetables and cereals are labelled organic, it means the farmer won’t have used chemical pesticides – be they weed-, insect- or fungi-killers.
Eat organic meat
Farmers may also use pesticides on crops that they feed to their animals. The harmful chemicals in pesticides can build up in the fat cells of the animal and consumers can be exposed to these chemicals when they eat meat. Choosing organic meat can reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Buying organic food
Choosing organic food is becoming easier in many places. If you’d like to choose organic, in the UK, look for the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers logos on food labels; in the rest of Europe, look for the EU organic logo.
Some people worry that organic food costs more than non-organic – and that can be the case. If you are concerned about the cost of switching wholly to organic food, you could start by cutting out the most contaminated produce, such as meat, larger fish, and dairy products. Pesticides Action Network (PAN) has some handy guides to choosing foods, such as its “Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen” and 38 consumer tips. PAN Europe also lists fruit and vegetables that you’re most likely find pesticide residues on.
Consider putting pressure on your local supermarket to provide more organic produce. PAN Europe provides draft letters to help you do this.
Avoiding endocrine disruptors in food packaging
A lot of food packaging contains chemicals that are harmful to human health. Chemicals can leach from the packaging – also called food contact materials (FCM) – and contaminate food and drink.
Here we’re talking about things like plastic tubs, wrappers and bottles, but also cardboard containers and grease-proof linings. These types of packaging are not effectively regulated in the EU. They may therefore contain harmful chemicals.
Current legislation isn’t good enough to protect us. That’s why CHEM Trust is calling for stricter regulation of chemicals in food packaging.
Meanwhile, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals from food packaging.
Avoid or reduce your consumption of:
• Plastic bottles
• Plastic food wrap
• Take-away and fast-food containers
• Packaging with greaseproof lining
• Canned foods
• Packaging labelled with recycling codes 3 and 7.
Avoid packaged food
The best way to lower your exposure to harmful chemicals in food contact materials is to choose food that isn’t packaged. For example:
- Buy fresh and loose: Choose fresh ingredients such as loose fruit and vegetables. You can also get foods like bread, pulses, pasta, rice, beans and nuts from bulk stores where you can refill your own containers – glass and stainless steel are good choices.
- Choose stainless steel bottles: Many reusable plastic bottles leach harmful chemicals, including phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) according to research by the Norwegian Consumer Council. Reduce your risk of exposure by opting for reusable bottles made of stainless steel.
- Store food in glass jars: Harmful chemicals in plastic packaging and containers can leach into your food or drink, so store food in glass jars to reduce your exposure. Cereals, pasta, rice, dried fruit and nuts are all easy to keep in jars.
- Cut down on the take-aways. There are concerns over chemicals used in take-away food packaging. For example, PFAS are often in things such as sandwich wrappers and bags for chips. Reducing the number of take-aways you buy is one option. Some take-away food outlets and supermarkets will let you fill your own container.
Which harmful chemicals are in food packaging?
It’s not easy to avoid packaged foods completely – but there are a few things to look out for and avoid.
- Say no to packaging containing bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a chemical often used in plastic food containers, plastic water bottles (such as those used for water coolers in offices) and canned foods. It’s a known hormone-disrupting chemical and has been linked to obesity, reproductive diseases and some cancers.
Tip: Plastic recycling code 7 means a material may contain BPA, so it’s a good idea to avoid products labelled code 7.
- Say no to packaging containing phthalates. These chemicals are used in some packaging such as plastic food wrap. They are often added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make the plastic soft. Exposure to phthalates in the womb has been linked to the disruption of reproductive organ development in boys, early onset of female puberty, and delayed language development.
Tip: Plastic recycling code 3 indicates the presence of PVC. Reduce your exposure to some phthalates by avoiding packaging with recycling code 3.
- Say no to paper containers with greaseproof linings. Greaseproof linings often contain PFAS, which have been identified as hormone disruptors.
A recent report from the organisation, Fidra, found that PFAS chemicals are present in a range of food packaging found in UK supermarkets and takeaways, including bakery bags, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and compostable takeaway boxes.
The best way to avoid PFAS in food packaging is to avoid the use of disposable packaging where possible and opt for reusable containers instead.
Denmark introduced a ban on these chemicals in cardboard and paper food contact materials in July 2020 because of their impact on human health.
Avoiding endocrine disruptors when cooking food
Some cooking equipment can expose us to harmful synthetic chemicals. Here are some ways to reduce your exposure.
Don’t microwave food in plastic packaging
Many foods are sold with instructions to cook the contents in its packaging. Microwaveable rice is one example. But cooking in the bag may not be the safest option. This is because plastic containers can contain harmful chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into food and drink – especially at higher temperatures in microwaves, for example. Just because something is labelled “microwave safe” doesn’t mean it’s free from harmful chemicals.
The Danish Coop stopped selling microwaveable popcorn in supermarkets in 2015 until brands offered packaging free of PFAS.
If you are buying food in plastic packaging, transfer it to heat-resistant glass or ceramic containers. Alternatively, skip the microwave and use a pan on a hob instead.
Avoid non-stick pans
Many types of non-stick pans contain harmful PFAS. If the pans are overheated or chipped, harmful chemicals can leach from the coating into your food.
Choose stainless steel or ceramic pans. For cooking in the oven, ceramic or glass are good options. If you have to use non-stick pans, take care not to scratch or burn the surface.
Avoid black plastic cooking utensils
Hazardous chemicals, such as flame retardants used in black plastic electronic devices, are finding their way into black plastic cooking utensils. This is because these utensils may be made from recycled electronic waste plastic, according to a study by the University of Plymouth.
Choose a stainless steel or glass reusable cup
Reusable coffee cups are a popular way to reduce your use of single-use plastics. However studies have found that some reusable cups contain harmful chemicals. For example, some bamboo coffee cups were found to release melamine into the drink. Melamine is a chemical which may damage the kidneys. Some reusable cups may also contain harmful chemicals (pdf) if they are made of recycled plastics. Alternatives are stainless steel or glass cups, or sitting in a café and using a ceramic cup.
You can help CHEM Trust put pressure on UK supermarkets to remove harmful PFAS chemicals from our food packaging.