The reality is that the safety of our food supply rests in many hands — including our own. We routinely see stories about recalls and disputes over which substances should or shouldn’t be in the things we eat. Navigating this deluge of information can be a challenge for most consumers. Let’s take a closer look at three of these toxins and how you can protect your family.
Inorganic arsenic is a heavy metal found in water, air, soil — and food. Long-term exposure can be harmful to your health. Contaminated drinking water is the most common source of the toxin, but it also can be found in rice, which absorbs a large amount of water during growth. Young children are particularly vulnerable and may suffer impaired mental development if exposed to excessive amounts. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors arsenic in our water and food supply, there are things you can do to limit exposure:
Check the well: If you drink well water, test arsenic levels to make sure it doesn’t exceed 10 parts per billion, a safety standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Variety is the spice of life: A limited diet increases risk of exposure if repeated food choices contain arsenic.
Minimize juice: Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to limit arsenic exposure through juice. The age-specific guide suggests no juice for children less than 1 year old and up to one cup for those 7 to 18 years old.
Barley for baby: Relying only on rice-based cereal increases exposure to infants. Instead, use a mix of iron-fortified infant cereals like oat, barley or multigrain.
Mercury is a heavy metal found in air and water. Methylmercury, the toxic form found in water, is absorbed by fish, which transfer it into our food supply. Large quantities are more likely to be found in bigger fish like swordfish, sharks and king mackerel.
The toxin, which can impair brain development, is particularly dangerous for unborn babies and young children. At the same time, fish also contain protein, omega-3 fats and other nutrients important for growth and development of children. This nutritional conflict led the FDA to create guidelines for the amount and type of fish to eat. The agency breaks fish into three categories — best, good and choices to avoid — offering direction for adults, pregnant women and children.
Adults and pregnant women: They should eat two to three servings (a serving is four ounces) a week from the FDA’s “best” list or one serving from the “good” list.
Children: At 2 years of age, a serving should be only one ounce. That gradually increases to the full four-ounce serving at the age of 11.
Further advice can be found from local fish advisories. If no advisory exists, the safe bet is to limit fish to one serving per week. Also, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch provides state-specific recommendations for sustainable seafood choices.
Acrylamide is a chemical used in waste-water treatment and paper manufacturing. It’s also found in cigarette smoke and food cooked at high temperatures. The substance is created by a chemical reaction when foods like potatoes, cereals and breads are cooked. As a result, the toxin is found in up to 40 percent of the calories consumed in the American diet and is present in the blood of 99.9 percent of the U.S. population. The substance has been linked to cancer in animals, though it’s uncertain whether it causes cancer in humans. With so much of it out there, it would be difficult to eliminate acrylamide from our diets. But the FDA has recommendations on how to minimize exposure.
Cut the crispiness: Fry at 338 degrees or lower to avoid heavy crisping or burning. The more deeply browned the food is, the more acrylamide is created.
Tinted toast: Toast bread to a light brown color.
Potato pantry: Store potatoes in the pantry instead of the refrigerator and soak 15 to 30 minutes before frying or roasting.
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