How healthy, or unhealthy certain foods are, for us and/or for the environment—is a hotly debated topic among experts and consumers alike, and there are no easy answers. But when researchers talked to the people at the forefront of food safety and asked them one simple question— “What foods do you avoid?”—They got some interesting answers. Although these foods don’t necessarily make up a “banned” list, I have given you some food for thought on why to avoid these foods and some solutions for alternatives.
- Canned Tomatoes: The expert: Fredrick vom Saal, PhD, an endocrinologist at the University of Missouri who studies bisphenol-A
The problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Unfortunately, acidity (a prominent characteristic of tomatoes) causes BPA to leach into your food. Studies show that the BPA in most people’s body exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. “You can get 50 mcg of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that’s a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young,” says vom Saal. “I won’t go near canned tomatoes.”
Dr. Kim’s solution: Choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Bionaturae and Coluccio. You can also get several types in Tetra Pak boxes, like Trader Joe’s and Pomi. Some brands are starting to remove the BPA from their can linings and they will add a “BPA-Free” seal on the label of the can.
- Corn-Fed Beef: The expert: Joel Salatin, co-owner of Polyface Farms and author of half a dozen books on sustainable farming
The problem: Cattle evolved to eat grass, not grains. But farmers today feed their animals GMO corn and soybeans, which fatten up the animals faster for slaughter. More money for cattle farmers (and lower prices at the grocery store) means a lot less nutrition for us. A recent comprehensive study conducted by the USDA and researchers from Clemson University found that compared with corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), calcium, magnesium, and potassium; lower in inflammatory omega-6s; and lower in saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease. “We need to respect the fact that cows are herbivores, and that does not mean feeding them corn and chicken manure,” says Salatin.
Dr. Kim’s solution: Buy grass-fed and grass finished beef, which can be found at a variety of grocery stores including King Soopers, Trager Joes and Whole Foods. It’s usually labeled because it demands a premium, but if you don’t see it, ask your butcher. Another option is to find a local ranch with grass-fed beef and buy in bulk. When purchasing a ¼ to a ½ of an animal you have more knowledge on how they were raised and what they were fed.
- Microwave Popcorn: The expert: Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group,
The problem: Chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), in the lining of the bag, are part of a class of compounds that may be linked to infertility in humans, according to a recent study from UCLA. In animal testing, the chemicals cause liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancer. Studies show that microwaving causes the chemicals to vaporize—and migrate into your popcorn. “They stay in your body for years and accumulate there,” says Naidenko, which is why researchers worry that levels in humans could approach the amounts causing cancers in laboratory animals. DuPont and other manufacturers have promised to phase out PFOA by 2015 under a voluntary EPA plan, but that has not happened yet and millions of bags of popcorn are continuing to be sold.
Dr. Kim’s solution: Pop natural kernels the old-fashioned way: in a skillet. For flavorings, you can add real butter or coconut oil and then sea salt and dried seasonings, such as dillweed, vegetable flakes, or spirulina powder.
- Non-Organic Potatoes: The expert: Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board
The problem: Root vegetables absorb herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that wind up in soil. In the case of potatoes—the nation’s most popular vegetable—they’re treated with fungicides during the growing season, then sprayed with herbicides to kill off the fibrous vines before harvesting. After they’re dug up, the potatoes are treated yet again to prevent them from sprouting. “Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won’t,” says Moyer. “I’ve talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals.”
Dr. Kim’s solution: Buy organic potatoes. Washing isn’t good enough if you’re trying to remove chemicals that have been absorbed into the flesh. If organic potatoes are not within the budget then try a different starchy vegetable as a replacement like butternut or acorn squash which has a drastically decreased chemical level.
- Conventional Apples: The expert: Mark Kastel, former executive for agribusiness and codirector of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research group that supports organic foods
The problem: If fall fruits held a “most doused in pesticides contest,” apples would win. Why? They are individually grafted (descended from a single tree) so that each variety maintains its distinctive flavor. As such, apples don’t develop resistance to pests and are sprayed frequently. The industry maintains that these residues are not harmful. But Kastel counters that it’s just common sense to minimize exposure by avoiding the most doused produce, like apples. “Farm workers have higher rates of many cancers,” he says. And increasing numbers of studies are starting to link a higher body burden of pesticides (from all sources) with Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Kim’s solution: Buy organic apples. Yes, I know organic are more expensive, but often go on sale. If you do buy conventional apples be sure to wash them by soaking in vinegar and rinsing completely and then peel and remove the skin before eating.
Visit the Colorado Center of Health and Nutrition website for more information about integrative nutrition and functional healthcare, along with links to patient forms and other information.