A bunch of chemical names written on slips of paper on a plate
Industrial processes, packaging and certain additives all contribute toxic chemicals to our food. EDF works with regulators and companies to tackle the issue, but there are things you can do too. Photo illustration by Monica Goslin

In today’s world, any bite of food, gulp of water or breath of air may contain all sorts of unhealthy chemicals, plastics and other contaminants. Unfortunately, we can’t completely avoid all this dangerous junk, but we can reduce our exposure to toxic substances. Here's how.

1. Diversify your diet

Heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead are in the soil, water and air. They can accumulate in the body and affect learning, behavior and attention. Some plants, including rice, absorb more of these harmful elements than others as they grow, so eating a variety of grains and vegetables can lower your overall exposure. For example, try substituting grains such as oats or barley for rice. When rice is on the menu, reduce your potential arsenic exposure by avoiding brown rice, since much of the arsenic is in the bran. Also, look for Basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan, which contain less inorganic arsenic than other rices.

2. Wash and peel

Root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals, but they are also among the most contaminated by heavy metals. Buying organic won’t help (though it may lower your exposure to pesticides). Wash produce carefully and peel root vegetables deeply to cut away chemicals concentrated in the skins, even if you grow your own at home.

3. Ditch the dyes

From gummy bears to sports drinks, synthetic dyes make foods look more delectable. But dyes that are widely used in foods are often synthesized from naphthalene, a chemical derived from petroleum. Studies have linked these dyes to increases in hyperactivity in children. If you buy packaged foods, choose those whose labels list only natural colorings from fruit and vegetable extracts. Best of all, make your meals from scratch, giving you control over the ingredients you use.

4. Detox your leftovers

Recent research has clarified the dangers of toxic chemicals in food containers. Phthalates, which make plastics more durable and flexible, can damage the liver, lungs and reproductive systems. Bisphenol A, used in rigid plastics and as a coating for metal food cans, can harm the immune system and disrupt the reproductive and endocrine systems. Store leftovers in glass or stainless steel containers, and never microwave food in plastic containers, since heat can cause chemicals in the plastic to leach into food.

5. Go slow with the fast food

In a study by Lariah Edwards, an EDF-George Washington University postdoctoral fellow, Edwards and her colleagues purchased 64 fast foods from major restaurant chains. They found that many popular menu items sampled contained phthalates and replacement chemicals which may pose a health risk. Fortunately, both hamburgers and chicken burritos — the two items in the study containing the highest levels of replacement plasticizers — are easy to make at home.