Thursday, February 24, 2011

Toxin-Free Kids

I didn't used to have any concern about the food available in the US.  I believed our regulating bodies of government had our best interests at hand, and that all food on grocery stores shelves were safe for consumption.

My feelings have changed, especially when it comes to feeding my young child.  There is clear evidence that a developing child's brain is highly vulnerable to toxin exposures.  Even those found in everyday goods.  See below for details, and how to keep your kids safe.

For years I ignored the "organic food" section of the store, which appeared simply to be a more expensive version of the same thing.  Why pay more?  It all seemed like a fad, or a ruse that I wasn't going to fall for.  All the while that section just kept growing, with organic labels popping up on all types of food imaginable.

Bella Organic Farm, Sauvie Island
The trend was really catching on (especially here in Portland), yet I remained skeptical.  Where was the proof organic is better or healthier in any way?  Traditional farming methods may use more pesticides, but these levels are monitored and checked to ensure they are safe for consumption, right?

An article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics journal in May 2010 completely changed my point of view.  This study looked at kids from 8 to 15 years of age and assessed two things:
1) level of organophosphates (a major ingredient found in pesticides) measured in their urine
2) whether or not they could be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

There was a definite direct correlation between level of pesticide toxin and ADHD.  This is major evidence of a potential link between this everyday exposure and a serious and incurable medical consequence.  This report was more than enough to convince me of the benefits of organic foods.

In case there's any question that going organic means lower exposure to organophosphates, a 2005 study of elementary school children proves it.  They looked at level of pesticide residue in children's urine before, during, and after eating strictly organic diet.  After 5 days of eating a strictly organic diet the kids had no trace of organophosphates, whereas with conventional diet they all were positive for the toxin.

Since it does cost more, I find it best to go for those foods that have the greatest benefit from organic growing methods.  In general, foods with thin skins which aren't peeled before consuming have greatest levels of pesticide absorption (ie. berries, bell pepper, celery have highest risk while banana, avocado, and citrus fruit are lowest).  Some foods are naturally less attractive to pests (such as onion, asparagus, and broccoli) so they don't need much in the way of pesticide to grow.  There are many helpful lists out there of the top foods worth going organic for.

Keep in mind that locally grown foods have a much lower level of residue than those imported from other countries because of what is needed to keep those fruits and vegetables fresh on their long voyage to your grocery store.  Levels of exposure have been shown to be 2-3 times higher in imported goods compared to domestic.

In summary:
Best to buy organic and locally grown fruit:  cranberries, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, pears, berries, cherries, cantaloupe, grapes.
Best to buy organic and locally grown veggies:  cucumber, bell pepper, green beans, celery, beets potatoes, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, carrots.
Safe to buy conventional: banana, citrus, avocado, onion, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts.

AAP's groundbreaking article
Evidence that eating organic lowers exposure to organophosphates
A summary on choosing foods to lower pesticide intake (local grown and organic)
Great pocket guide to organic produce shopping
List of organic vs. conventional choices with explanations

By now we've all heard of BPA, which stands for Bisphenol A, a component of many plastics.  The potential risks for human health point to a number of very concerning effects including cancer, diabetes, obesity, and reproductive impairment.  Toxin exposure of any kind will be magnified in a developing infant, which makes it all the more important to keep this away from our young ones.

BPA has already been completely banned from infant bottles in Europe for this very reason.
This chart is taken from a report by the European Food Safety Authority showing various exposure rates depending on age and method of feeding.

Conservative estimates of total dietary exposure to bisphenol A by age
Age of consumer
Food/Beverages consumed
Dietary exposure to BPA based on conservative migration value in microgram/kg bw/day
3 month infant
Breast milk only
3 month infant
Infant formula fed with glass or non-polycarbonate bottle
3 month infant
Infant formula fed with polycarbonate bottle
4 to 11
6 month infant
Infant formula fed with polycarbonate bottle and commercial foods/beverages
8.3 to 13
1.5 year-old child
2 kg commercial foods/beverages
3 kg commercial foods/beverages

To keep your child safe, look for BPA-free plastics such as bottles, teethers, and food storage containers.

This also means avoiding canned foods entirely since the inside metal is lined with it to prevent spoilage. Choose fresh, frozen, glass jars, or cartons instead of cans.
There are a few notable companies that use BPA-free linings in all or some of their canned goods: Eden Organic, Trader Joes, Native Forest, Vital Choice, Wild Planet, Oregon Choice.  Check labeling and company website information to be sure.

Mercury is absolutely toxic to humans.  Remember the character of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland?  He was crazy because of mercury poisoning, common in folks in the hat industry long ago, because of the chemical process used in making them.  Mercury is still around today, and the biggest source is in our seafood.  The consequences on a developing brain are well known, and include lower intelligence and learning disabilities in low doses, serious neurologic impairment and seizure in high doses.  Pregnant women and children need to be especially cautious.

All creatures of the sea can be found to have trace amounts of mercury, but by far it's the larger size fish that have the most.  Avoiding all seafood would be extreme, and would cause us to miss out on all the wonderful benefits from this healthy food source.
The smart thing to do is to avoid the big fish, including all types of tuna (that includes yellow tail and albacore), swordfish, bass, grouper, and orange roughy.  Lobster may also be affected.
Good seafood choices that are lowest in mercury include tilapia, anchovy, catfish, crab, trout, shrimp, salmon, and squid.

FDA warning of mercury in seafood
FDA list of mercury levels in types of seafood
Great PBS article about the issue
Guide to mercury levels in seafood

Salmon raised in farms rather than caught wild in the ocean have high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB, a toxic chemical that persists in the environment and contaminates the food supply.  PCB is a well known carcinogen.  It also has negative effects on the immune system, reproduction, and neurologic development.  It has also been known to cause elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Though PCB manufacturing in the US has been banned since 1979, it has not been eradicated from our environment.  Farmed salmon swim in contaminated waters, and are fed a diet rich in fish and fish oils which are also tainted.

Choose wild caught salmon, or another type of low mercury fish to serve your kids.  Alternatively, trim the fat and broil, bake, or grill the salmon rather than frying in order to reduce exposure.

PCB in farmed salmon
Health effects of PCBs
PCB information

Lead ingestion in kids causes a host of problems: developmental delays, hearing loss, speech problems, behavior and attention problems, growth restriction, puberty delay, anemia, and nutritional deficiencies.

Sources for lead in the environment are found in certain paints (especially those before 1980), ceramic glaze, home remedies (Azarcon, Alarcon, Greta, Rueda, Pay-loo-ah, or Kohl), industrial products, and art supplies.

Avoid these hazardous sources whenever possible, and be especially aware of goods or foods that are imported from countries without regulations as strict as those in the US.

Oregon lead exposure questionnaire
Medical effects and management of lead exposure

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