RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's bad enough that untested and unsafe chemicals infiltrate nearly every product in our homes, but the fact that they're winding up in our food is even more disturbing. A study published this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that phthalates, chemicals linked to reproductive disorders and childhood behavioral problems, are cropping up in poultry and chemically farmed produce. Fortunately, an even more recent study published in the journal Environmental Research suggests that by eliminating certain foods from your diet, you can reduce the levels of those chemicals in your body, and it only takes a short time to get results.
THE DETAILS: This was a very small study of 25 Korean adults, who agreed to stay at a Buddhist temple for five days and adhere to a vegetarian diet. Before they started the five-day "Temple Stay" program, however, each participant noted how much beef, pork, chicken, dairy, sheep, goat, duck, turkey and seafood he or she ate in the 48-hour period leading up to the stay. The adults were all found to have three specific veterinary antibiotics and four types of phthalates in their urine at the start of the study (people on medication were excluded from the study so the authors could tell if food was their primary source of antibiotic exposure). Consuming more beef, pork, chicken, and dairy was associated with high levels of antibiotics in the urine, and higher consumption of dairy was associated with high levels of phthalates. After the five-day temple stay, the participants' urine was sampled again, and the researchers found significant reductions in urine levels of two of the three antibiotics and of phthalates.
WHAT IT MEANS: This was a small study, and the authors didn't specify what exactly the participants ate while at the Buddhist temple or whether dairy products were part of their vegetarian diet, nor did they mention whether the participants ceased using personal-care products or other fragranced consumer products, also major sources of phthalate exposure. But their research does suggest that eating less dairy, red meat, and poultry can lower your body's levels of chemicals significantly, which is good news.
Antibiotics wind up in food as a result of their use in treating sick animals and as growth promoters; federal law prohibits the use of growth hormones in poultry, so poultry producers use antibiotics to get animals to grow quickly. How phthalates wind up in food is more of a mystery. The chemicals are used to keep polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic soft, and some cling wraps used to wrap meat and cheese are made with PVC, which could transmit phthalates into food. PVC can also be used in other processing and storage equipment. Phthalates are used in pesticides, too, and can therefore be absorbed by some fruits and vegetables, as well as by animals eating contaminated feed, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan, which in turn contaminates meat and dairy products. A 2006 study found that certain types of phthalates are attracted to fats and are therefore more prevalent in fatty foods.