News | Published November 29, 2012

Food-borne toxins and your children

A recent study in Environmental Health about the cumulative impact of food-borne toxins on children and adults has produced interesting - some say sobering - results.

Researchers found that preschool children in particular were at high risk for exposure to toxic compounds like metals, arsenic, lead and mercury, pesticides, and food processing byproducts. These compounds have been linked to cancer, developmental disabilities, birth defects, and other conditions.

"Contaminants get into our food in a variety of ways," said study principal investigator Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC Davis. "They can be chemicals that have nothing to do with the food or byproducts from processing."

Researchers focused on preschool-aged children "because early exposure can have long-term effects on disease outcomes," said Rainbow Vogt, lead author of the study. Also cited was the increased vulnerability of children and the effects of chemicals on the developing brain.

While they noted the results are concerning, the study also explains ways to lower exposure to these toxins - for the whole family.

"Varying our diet and our children's diet could help reduce exposure," said Hertz-Picciotto. "Because different foods are treated differently at the source, dietary variation can help protect us from accumulating too much of any one toxin."

They suggest that families do the following to reduce the potential impact of toxins:

  • Switch to organic milk
  • Eliminate processed foods like potato and tortilla chips due to the levels of a cooking byproduct
  • Reduce consumption of animal meat and fats
  • When choosing fish, select smaller fish which have lower mercury levels
  • Choose organic fruits and vegetables - especially when you eat the peels (tomatoes, apples, strawberries, greens, broccoli, etc)

In addition to improving diet - which, researchers mentioned, families should be doing anyway - the study also brought to light policy issues that, if addressed, could also improve the impact of toxins in food.