MDs Answer: Are Chemicals in Our Food Harmful?



It’s straightforward sufficient to toss canned items, frozen meals, and different packaged objects into your cart while you’re grocery procuring. However a scan of the components record may go away you questioning: What precisely are you consuming?

That is very true recently, when headlines about unfamiliar components, chemical compounds linked to most cancers, and microplastics really feel inescapable.

After we requested readers to share their greatest well being questions for our Real Talk Rx series, we discovered lots of you needed to understand how involved you have to be about chemical compounds in your meals. So we posed this query to our panel of specialists.

We’ll get to their solutions in a minute. However first, let’s break down the three areas many people are most nervous about:

Specialists In This Article

  • Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH, a board-certified household medication doctor and District Medical Director at One Medical in North Carolina
  • Samuel Mathis, MD, a board-certified household medication physician and assistant professor of household medication on the College of Texas Medical Department
  • Divesh Goel, MD, board-certified household medication physician

Unfamiliar components

Many widespread components in meals, akin to ascorbic acid, nitrates, sulfides, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate, can learn like a overseas language. These components are sometimes meals preservatives, which permit meals to last more, in response to Food Insight. Generally they’re much less intimidating when translated into on a regular basis language: Ascorbic acid, as an illustration, is vitamin C.

Any components included in meals are regulated: The FDA contains about 700 meals components on the commonly acknowledged as secure (GRAS) record, in response to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The quantity of an ingredient issues, too. Some chemical compounds could also be harmful at excessive ranges, which is why they’re solely permitted at “one-hundredth of the quantity that’s thought-about dangerous,” per the NLM.

A scary warning from California on packaging

One other potential explanation for fear: On some packaging, you might even see ominous language alongside the strains of: “This product accommodates a chemical recognized to the State of California to trigger most cancers.”

That warning is required as a part of California’s Proposition 65, which was authorised in 1986. Underneath this legislation, California has created an inventory of 900+ chemical compounds recognized to trigger most cancers or reproductive toxicity (assume: BPA, a chemical generally utilized in meals packaging), and requires companies to share warnings about them, in response to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).

Value noting: “Not each chemical on the record has been confirmed to the worldwide scientific group to really trigger most cancers in folks,” in response to the American Cancer Society.

Plus, in terms of hurt, the quantity of an ingredient issues, identical to with the meals components above. Whereas the Prop 65 record of components takes this into consideration by setting secure ranges for chemical compounds, these “ranges are regularly round 1,000 instances decrease than ranges set by regulatory businesses such because the FDA, EPA and World Well being Group,” in response to Food Insight.

Information about microplastics

You gained’t see microplastics — aka teeny-tiny items of plastic — listed as an ingredient in your meals, however you are doubtless consuming them.

That’s as a result of microplastics are present in water, fish and shellfish, salts and sugars, processed meals, and crops, in response to a July 2022 evaluate within the International Journal of Food Contamination. It’s attainable these tiny bits of plastic hurt our well being, together with probably messing together with your weight, however we’d like extra analysis to know for positive.

So, are chemical compounds in meals dangerous? How nervous ought to we be?

Samuel Mathis, MD, headshot banner

“It relies on what sort of meals you’re consuming. Normally, I like to recommend sufferers observe three guidelines for wholesome consuming [popularized by journalist and author Michael Pollan]:

Rule 1 is to eat actual meals. Eat meals your grandparents would have stated is meals. For those who’re consuming the stuff people have been consuming for 1000’s of years, you don’t have to fret about microplastics or different chemical compounds in your meals since you’re consuming the precise meals and never a processed type of it.

Rule 2 just isn’t consuming an excessive amount of. And rule 3 is eat principally crops. I’m not saying don’t eat meat, however most of our diet should be plant-based.

There’s a record of meals often called the ‘soiled dozen’ in integrative medication. These are meals that most likely must be purchased natural due to their tendency to soak up and maintain on to pesticides and different chemical compounds. The soiled dozen embody meals like strawberries, darkish leafy greens, peaches, apples, and blueberries.

For those who discover, most of those are crops which have a really skinny pores and skin, or that we eat with the pores and skin on. I’m extra involved about these meals than I’m about one thing like a banana or an avocado—due to the thick outer pores and skin, it’s unlikely they’d be as affected by pesticides.”

“What I inform my sufferers is to eat issues which might be nearer to Earth. An apple you choose is nearer to the supply than the applesauce you purchase within the grocery retailer.” —Divesh Goel, MD

Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, headshot banner

“Sadly, when meals is mass-produced in the US, it isn’t all the time produced to the very best requirements.

Usually pesticides and issues that in some methods hold the meals suitable for eating can really introduce new dangerous chemical compounds into your physique. We additionally hear loads about E. Coli outbreaks and salmonella outbreaks. Lots of that additionally has to do with how meals is produced in the US.

Normally, if an individual can afford it, it’s all the time greatest to eat entire meals (issues that aren’t as processed), eat organic, or attempt to discover animal merchandise that had been maybe produced in a extra humane manner—that may really translate to well being advantages.”

Divesh Goel, MD, headshot banner

“Everyone must be cognizant of what’s of their meals, if they’ve the capability to bear in mind. However some persons are nervous about survival. Provided that you’re larger on Maslow’s Pyramid, together with your important wants met, do you will have the capability to have a look at what’s in meals.

Some degree of consciousness is vital. However sadly, until you progress to a unique nation, or you will have, say, a interest farm, or you will have the cash, time, and sources to get actually natural meals, it is most likely futile to be overly cognizant as a result of every little thing has chemical compounds in it and all of us are going to be uncovered.

What I inform my sufferers is to eat issues which might be nearer to Earth. An apple you choose is nearer to the supply than the applesauce you purchase within the grocery retailer. You do not have to memorize something, you needn’t know what’s in every little thing. However the nearer it’s to the supply, most likely the higher it will be for you.”

The takeaway

Consuming entire meals—akin to vegatables and fruits—greater than processed foods might be one technique to restrict your consumption of doubtless dangerous chemical compounds.

However in fact, even core constructing blocks of meals—like rice and pasta, or canned objects like tomatoes and beans—have been processed ultimately, so it is almost unattainable to fully keep away from chemical compounds in meals.

Remember, although, that you simply’re sometimes taking in quantities of those components effectively beneath the degrees at which they could grow to be hazardous to your well being.

You probably have issues about particular meals you eat and the way they could have an effect on your well being, contemplate reaching out to your physician or a registered dietitian for extra recommendation.

‌Confused about your well being? Get solutions to extra widespread questions in our Real Talk Rx series.

Properly+Good articles reference scientific, dependable, latest, sturdy research to again up the knowledge we share. You possibly can belief us alongside your wellness journey.

  1. Udovicki, B., Andjelkovic, M., Cirkovic-Velickovic, T. et al. Microplastics in meals: scoping evaluate on well being results, prevalence, and human publicity. FoodContamination 9, 7 (2022).


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