2013-02-27

Co.Exist

You're Eating Toxic Chemicals, Even If You Eat Organic And Avoid Plastic

A new study found remarkable levels of endocrine disruptors in even carefully catered diets.

You do everything right. You eat your organic produce, free-range meat and eggs, and hormone-free milk. You studiously avoid plastic containers that could leach Bisphenol A (BPA), a possibly toxic estrogen-mimicking compound. Does it matter? A new study indicates that it does--but only to a point. In fact, you could eat an organic, local diet without any plastic exposure and still end up with high levels of toxic chemicals in your body.

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician focused on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and health impacts at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, noticed that her patients often asked how they could reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors at home. So she and her colleagues set up a study to test the efficacy of a written recommendation versus a five-day catered diet to see which (if either) would reduce exposure to BPA and pthalates, a group of chemicals used in plastics that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and more. The results, published this week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, were somewhat shocking.

Sathyanarayana’s study consisted of 10 families. One group of random participants was given written guidelines from the national Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit on avoiding BPA and pthalates in daily life (i.e. avoid canned foods when possible). The other group was given catered food and drink from a local company that offers organic, fresh, and local items. Both groups were asked to drink filtered water and avoid plastic drink containers. "People tend to focus on the organic part of it, but it was also fresh foods when possible, and no plastic used in cooking, preparation, or storage of foods," she explains.

The researchers assumed that urinary BPA and pthalate levels would drop in the catered group compared to the group using written instructions--people are generally bad at following advice from their doctors after all. "Instead we saw big spikes and increases in the catered diet group and no changes at all in the written education group," she says.

Sathyanarayana’s team tested the food samples in the catered group to find the source of contamination. The culprits: milk, cream, ground coriander, and other spices. "I honestly don’t know why the spices were more contaminated or why the dairy had higher contamination, but I do know it’s consistent with other reports," she says. In general spices, high fat dairy, and animal fats tend to have higher phthalate concentrations--but not at the levels reported in Sathyanarayana’s study.

What happened? Remember: That milk came from local farms in glass containers. And the coriander and other spices, while not local (many aren’t produced in the U.S.), came from an organic company trusted by the caterer.

Nonetheless, Sathyanarayana stresses that this doesn’t mean chemical exposure is out of our hands. "We do have national studies that [look at] general population exposures, and they don’t see concentrations this high. Other food studies don’t document concentrations in food this high either," she says. "It was a fluke in the sense that we happened to have a catered diet with several spices and dairy with higher concentrations."

It’s not like going vegan would have solved the problem. The kids in the study had higher phthalate concentrations, possibly because the caterer gave the families snacks (bread, cheese, etc.) that they turned into grilled cheese. "But even without the dairy, we still wouldn’t have seen results we’d hope to see," says Sathyanarayana.

The authors conclude in their study: "It may be that our findings reflect an isolated rare contamination event because of unusual processing or a packaging abnormality. It also could be the case that the food supply is systematically contaminated with high phthalate concentrations, which are difficult to identify."

Sathyanarayana isn’t planning to dig deeper in the supply chain to figure out where the chemicals came from--that falls outside her research interests, though she hopes that advocacy groups will pursue the issue.

There are still ways to reduce BPA and phthalate exposure, despite what the study’s results indicate. Sathyanarayana recommends a fresh food diet with reduced animal fat and canned food intake. "Diet can really contribute to your chemical exposure," she says.

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10 Comments

  • Marc Montti

    Filtered water you said?   If its Reverse Osmosis, then the water would be making a very large surface area contact with the synthetic Reverse Osmosis Filter Membrane.

     and lesser surface area contact with

     the RO Filter Housing
    Hosing,
     and Water Storage Container
    Note-
    the water storage container is metal but the water inside is held within a Plastic(synthetic) bladder
    Reason -  container is vacuum pressurized.  the vacuum healps pull(suck)  the water through the RO filter Membrane that has micro size pores)

  • creinsch

    It is troubling that this study was released via a press
    release to the general public, even after the researcher acknowledged that the
    source of food for the catered test group was contaminated.  This, combined with a relatively small sized test
    group, makes me wonder to what kind of peer review studies like this may be
    subject.  The press has in record time completely
    distorted what are doubtful “findings”.  And
    the public is left to speculate…..

  • Vircabutar

    **As someone who works as a catering cook and a public health researcher, I'm really not surprised that the food from the catering company had high levels of bpa & pthalates. Catering companies, even the ones that focuses on local, organic food, excessively (I mean serious excessiveness) wrap their food in cling wrap and always store their food in plastic containers or to-go boxes. No consideration is usually given whether the food was hot/cold when covering them with plastic. Things wrapped in plastic are often cooked in oven since the label purportedly claims that it's "oven/microwave safe". It's quite scary. 

  • Vircabutar

    As someone who works as a catering cook and a public health researcher, I'm really not surprised that the food from the catering company had high levels of bpa & pthalates. Catering company, even the ones that focuses on local, organic food, excessively (I mean serious excessiveness) wrap their food in cling wrap and always store their food in plastic containers or to-go boxes. No consideration is usually given whether the food was hot/cold when covering them with plastic. Things also often cooked in oven wrapped in plastic sometimes since the label purportedly claims that it's "oven/microwave safe". It's quite scary. 

  • think 360

    I don't have access to the study itself but this link will take you to a presentation by the study's author: http://www.ecogenetix.org/2012...

    It's clear that the contaminated 'organic' coriander was the primary culprit, with some contributory effects from the milk and other spices.  As the author states above, she doesn't know how the coriander became contaminated.

    So this study is no way an indictment of an organic fresh (un  packaged?) plant-based diet as it doesn't appear that any of the contaminants came from unseasoned fresh organic food.  In fact, "Sathyanarayana recommends a fresh food diet with reduced animal fat and canned food intake."

    I'd be curious if the coriander might have been contaminated during processing with the illegal use of a plastic 'powder' as a means to keep the spice grains from clumping.  Does anyone remember the melamine dog food and baby formula milk scandal?  I'm sure these contaminations continue to be routine in many parts of the world, including the US.

    Our family often uses these spices - organic of course! :)  Will be advocating that the company distributing these organic spices test for contamination.

  • J_evenson3000

    Did the study really only last for 5 days? If not, how long did it last? Also, even if the milk were eventually bottled in glass, it could have spent time in plastic containers at any other point in the milk production process before bottling.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Yes, the participants followed their diets for five days, which was enough time to see spikes in chemical levels. As the researchers note, ". It also could be the case that the food supply is systematically contaminated with high phthalate concentrations, which are difficult to identify."

  • Lldutton

    I agree Dian. Obviously more study should be put in to this before coming out and saying it doesn't matter if you eat organic or not.