Chemicals in our Food: Talking with your clients about separating fact from fiction

Today, people are more aware than ever before of the impact of the environment on our health. Chemicals, both natural and synthetic, find their way from the environment into our bodies, often through ingestion. Have your patients asked you about chemicals in their food? Given that most people don’t have much training in the sciences, it can be very difficult to stay on top of the literature and emerging stories, know what’s safe and what’s best to avoid, and make informed decisions. 

The idea that chemicals are present in our food is definitely intimidating. Certain facets of this debate (such as genetic modification and the merits of organic farming) have been politicized and are very controversial. On top of that, it seems like every day, there are new flashy headlines about chemicals in our food. These stories often use scare tactics or misrepresent data by sensationalizing the science. 

Even approaching these stories with some healthy skepticism, the fact remains that food now is different than in the past. Preservatives, flavorings, and other chemicals are pretty much ubiquitous, which wasn’t always the case. There are phthalates in macaroni and cheese, as we saw in recent news headlines. Certain flavoring compounds, like those that used to be used in microwave popcorn, are known to be harmful. Rice can contain detectable levels of arsenic. Given that these are foods often fed to children, it’s doubly concerning. Truly, it can be enough to make your head spin.

So, what do you do when your patients come in with questions about the newest study that said their favorite food is bad for them or has chemicals in it? Really, this situation is perfectly suited for you to spend some time educating your patient on a few key points. Remind your patient that natural compounds are not inherently safe. Think about it: many plants and animals produce toxins that are naturally occurring. Conversely, synthetic chemicals are not inherently bad for you. It’s the specific properties of each chemical, and not their origin, that define their safety. 

Similarly, as toxicologists point out, “the dose makes the poison.” Many chemicals that we know to be dangerous at high levels have no effect at lower levels. So while phthalates are certainly present in macaroni and cheese, the levels are low enough that there shouldn’t be much of a concern. The same goes for hormones in milk, which are likely broken down in our bodies before they can have an effect. And same goes for rice, which can be dealt with by adequate rinsing. Just remember, this topic can be scary and emotionally charged, so aim to educate your patients and equip them to make evidence-based decisions.

Resources for you and your patients include the US FDA Foodborne Illnesses website, the Science Driven Nutrition blog, and of course, the Healthy Bytes blog and newsletter.