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NUTRITION

6 ‘Toxins’ in Food That Are Actually Concerning

Written by Franziska Spritzler — Medically reviewed by Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, Nutrition — Updated on August 1, 2022

You’ve probably heard many claims that some common foods or food ingredients are toxic. Fortunately, most of these claims aren’t supported by science.

However, there are a few ingredients that may be harmful, particularly when consumed in large amounts.

Here are six foods, ingredients, or compounds that are worth being concerned about.

Getty Images/Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm

1. Bisphenol A and similar compounds

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that used to be found in the plastic containers of many common foods and beverages and in the lining inside metal cans (for instance, those used for canned tomatoes).

However, studies have shown that BPA can leach out of these containers and into the food or beverage inside (1Trusted Source).

BPA is believed to mimic estrogen by binding to the receptor sites meant for the hormone. This can disrupt typical hormone function (1Trusted Source).

What’s more, studies in pregnant animals have shown that BPA exposure leads to problems with reproduction and increases the future breast and prostate cancer risk of a developing fetus (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).

Some observational studies have also found that high BPA levels are associated with insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).

However, while animal studies have found an association between BPA and weight gain and insulin resistance, few human studies have studied the association between markers of BPA exposure and diabetes (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).

Fortunately, most plastics and cans are now BPA-free. However, BPA has been replaced in many products with very similar compounds such as bisphenol S, which may have similar effects (6Trusted Source).

In fact, one review notes that BPS may be more toxic to the reproductive system than BPA (6Trusted Source).

To reduce your exposure to these potentially harmful compounds, avoid plastic dishware as much as possible — including bottled water. Use glass and stainless steel drinkware instead of plastic, and look for foods that are packaged in glass rather than aluminum cans.

SUMMARY

BPA was once commonly found in plastic and the lining of aluminum cans, but it has since been mostly phased out because of links to negative health effects. However, replacements such as BPS may have similar drawbacks.

2. Artificial trans fats

Artificial trans fats are made by pumping hydrogen into unsaturated oils such as soybean and corn oils to turn them into solid fats. They used to be in many processed foods, such as margarine, snack foods, and packaged baked goods.

However, animal and observational studies have repeatedly shown that trans fat consumption causes inflammation and has negative effects on heart health (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).

For this reason, the use of artificial trans fats has been fully banned in the United States since January 2020 (10Trusted Source).

Some animal-based foods may contain some naturally occurring trans fats, but these don’t have the same negative health effects as industrial trans fats (9Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

Artificial trans fats are highly inflammatory and may contribute to heart disease. They are now banned from being used in food in the United States, but if a serving of food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, it can be labeled 0 grams.

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3. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are considered environmental pollutants. They arise from burning organic material, but they’re also found in foods (11Trusted Source).

When meat is grilled or smoked at high temperatures, fat drips onto hot cooking surfaces, producing volatile PAHs that can seep into the meat.

Although red meat was once thought to be the main culprit, samples of grilled chicken and fish have been found to contain similar levels of PAHs (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).

In fact, smoked and grilled meats are one of the primary sources of PAHs in food. But PAHs are also found in many types of processed foods (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).

Unfortunately, researchers have found that PAHs are toxic and linked to an increased risk of breast, kidney, colon, and prostate cancer (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source).

Although it’s best to use other methods of cooking, such as braising or slow cooking, you can reduce PAHs by as much as 89% when grilling by minimizing smoke and quickly removing drippings (20Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

Grilled and smoked meats are high in PAHs, which can increase the risk of cancer. Cooking methods such as braising and slow cooking can reduce the PAHs in meats.

4. Coumarin in cinnamon

Coumarin is a toxic compound found in C. cassia, C. loureiroi, and C. burmannii cinnamon. These types of cinnamon are commonly found in grocery stores (21Trusted Source).

At high doses, coumarin has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and liver damage. However, it’s impossible to know how much coumarin your cinnamon contains unless you have it tested (21Trusted Source).

One study found that children who regularly sprinkled cinnamon on their oatmeal could have unsafe levels of coumarin intake, so it’s something to be aware of if you consume cinnamon regularly (22Trusted Source).

If you want to avoid coumarin, look for a different type of cinnamon, called Ceylon cinnamon or “true cinnamon,” from the Cinnamomum verum plant. It’s harder to find in stores (you may have to order it online) and more expensive, but it contains much lower levels of coumarin (21Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

Cassia cinnamon contains coumarin, which may increase your risk of liver damage or cancer if consumed in excess. Ceylon cinnamon is harder to find but contains much lower levels of coumarin.

5. Added sugars

Added sugars are often referred to as “empty calories.” However, the harmful effects of sugar go way beyond that.

Sugar that is high in fructose, such as high-fructose corn syrup, in excess, has been linked to many serious conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, and cancer (23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).

Foods high in added sugars are also highly processed and may have addictive properties that make it hard for some people to regulate their intake of these foods (26Trusted Source).

Based on animal studies, some researchers have attributed this to sugar’s ability to cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that stimulates reward pathways (26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).

To lower your added sugar intake, limit sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and fruit juices and eat processed snack foods and desserts only occasionally.

SUMMARY

Added sugars, which are found in many foods, can contribute to unwanted weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and a number of other chronic conditions.

6. Mercury in fish

Fish is an extremely healthy animal protein, but certain varieties of deep sea fish can contain high levels of mercury, a known toxin. This is a result of the pollutant working its way up the food chain in the sea (28Trusted Source).

Plants that grow in mercury-contaminated waters are consumed by small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish. Over time, mercury accumulates in the bodies of those larger fish, which are eventually eaten by humans.

Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning it can damage the brain and nerves. Research suggests that young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are at particularly high risk, since mercury can affect fetal and infant brain and nervous system development (29Trusted Source).

A 2014 analysis found that in several countries, mercury levels in the hair and blood of women and children were significantly higher than the World Health Organization recommends, particularly in coastal communities and near mines (30Trusted Source).

Some fish, such as king mackerel and swordfish, are extremely high in mercury and should be avoided. However, eating other types of fish is still advised because they have many health benefits (31Trusted Source).

To limit your mercury exposure, choose low mercury fish such as salmon, pollock, herring, and catfish (32Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

Certain deep sea fish, like king mackerel and swordfish, contain high amounts of toxic mercury. However, other types of fish, such as salmon and herring, are safer to consume.

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The bottom line

Many claims about harmful effects of food toxins aren’t supported by science, but some foods and food compounds do warrant concern.

To minimize your risk of harm, limit your consumption of processed foods, seed oils, processed meats, and added sugars as much as possible.

However, it’s also important to remember that many of these foods are harmful only with consistent regular or high intake, so you don’t have to give them up entirely — just limit them to occasional treats.

Just one thing

Try this today: Reducing your intake of processed foods is one way to greatly decrease your exposure to things like refined seed oils and added sugar. Is there a processed food you eat regularly that you could easily replace with a whole-food version?

Breakfast may be a good place to start. Try replacing a fast-food or frozen breakfast meal with a homemade scramble of eggs, diced potatoes, veggies, and cheese. For a quick and convenient breakfast option, make a big batch in advance and eat it throughout the week.

Last medically reviewed on August 1, 2022

NUTRITION

What Is BPA? Should I Be Concerned About It?

Written by SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD and Alina Petre, MS, RD (NL) — Medically reviewed by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD, Nutrition — Updated on April 12, 2022

Basics

Where It’s Found

How to Avoid It

Bottom Line

You’ve probably seen that most plastics you purchase these days are labeled “BPA-free.” But you might be wondering exactly what that means and why it’s important.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an industrial chemical used in plastics manufacturing and added to many commercial products, including food containers, baby bottles, plastic water bottles, and hygiene products.

It has been used since the 1960s to produce strong and resilient plastics for food packaging and home kitchen use (1Trusted Source).

Some people are concerned about BPA’s ability to leach into foods and beverages, and some research suggests that BPA exposure may lead to a number of health problems.

This article provides a detailed review of BPA and its potential health effects.

jamie grill atlas/Stocksy United

Why are some people concerned about BPA?

Many people worry about BPA exposure. One of the main reasons for this concern is that BPA can leach out of food or drink containers and into the food or beverages you consume.

That’s particularly true of foods or beverages that may be stored for long periods in containers with BPA, like canned tomatoes or bottled water.

That includes plastic that may be heated, as heat can cause additional BPA to leach out — for example, foods meant to be microwaved in plastic bowls or beverages microwaved in plastic cups (2Trusted Source).

In fact, BPA exposure is so widespread that research suggests most people over the age of 6 have measurable amounts of BPA in their urine. One study found that about 85% of Korean children under 2 years old had detectable levels of BPA in their urine (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).

Researchers have found that BPA exposure is linked to a number of health issues, partly because BPA mimics the structure and function of the hormone estrogen (5Trusted Source).

That means BPA can bind to estrogen receptors and influence bodily processes, such as growth, cell repair, fetal development, energy levels, and reproduction.

In addition, BPA may also interact with other hormone receptors, such as those for your thyroid, thus altering their function (6Trusted Source).

Your body is sensitive to changes in hormone levels, which is the reason why BPA’s ability to mimic estrogen or affect other hormones is thought to influence health.

BPA exposure and safe levels

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), exposure of less than 2.25 milligrams per pound (5 mg per kg) of bodyweight per day are safe (7Trusted Source).

Most people are only exposed to 0.1-2.2 micrograms per pound (0.2-0.5 micrograms per kg) of bodyweight per day (7Trusted Source).

In fact, the FDA still recognizes BPA as a safe additive in food packaging, although the agency banned manufacturers from using BPA in baby formula cans, baby bottles, and sippy cups in 2012 (1Trusted Source).

Regardless, some emerging research suggests that — even at established “safe” levels — BPA exposure may cause or contribute to a variety of health problems (8Trusted Source).

Still, we need more research to understand if there is a true safety threshold for BPA exposure or if it can cause harm at any level of exposure.

SUMMARY

BPA is found in many plastic products, and unfortunately, it can leach into foods and beverages and then be absorbed into our bodies. As an estrogen-like compound, it may cause some health problems.

Which products may contain BPA?

Common products that may contain BPA include (9Trusted Source):

Items packaged in plastic containers

Canned foods

Toiletries

Menstrual products

Thermal printer receipts

CDs and DVDs

Household electronics

Eyeglass lenses

Sports equipment

Dental filling sealants

Even some drinking water pipes are lined with epoxy resins containing BPA (3Trusted Source).

Generally, containers that may contain BPA are marked with recycling code 3 or 7 (3Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

BPA may be found in many commonly used plastic and paper products.

Potential health effects of BPA exposure

A note from Healthline

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”

We recognize that this language doesn’t encompass all identities and experiences. However, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, intersex, or genderless.

We encourage you to talk with a healthcare professional if you need support navigating how the information in this article may apply to you.

May cause infertility in men and women

BPA may affect several aspects of male and female fertility.

As a phytoestrogen, or a plant-based compound that mimics estrogen, it may act on estrogen receptors in both males and females to promote inflammation or cause damage to the cells through a process called oxidative stress (10Trusted Source).

The damage may manifest in different ways. In one study, male mice who received BPA-treated drinking water had lower testosterone levels, diminished sperm quality, and greater infertility compared with mice who received regular drinking water (11Trusted Source).

In female mice, researchers have found that BPA exposure reduces fertility by decreasing the hormone estradiol, reducing the number of healthy eggs and negatively affecting the ability of a fertilized egg to implant on the uterus (12Trusted Source).

In a concept known as “precocious maturation,” BPA exposure appears to prematurely age the female reproductive system, causing hormone changes and diminished fertility (12Trusted Source).

BPA has also been linked to endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in animal studies (12Trusted Source).

Although such effects are notable, more studies are needed to strengthen the body of evidence. Much of the evidence we have is from mice studies, so they’re not necessarily indicative of how BPA affects human fertility (13Trusted Source).

Linked to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes

The inflammatory effects of BPA may contribute to unwanted weight gain, along with the development of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In addition to binding to estrogen receptors, BPA may bind to other hormone receptors, causing adipogenesis (fat accumulation) (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).

BPA may also cause stress to your body by damaging the mitochondria (the energy factories in each of your cells). Stress can lead to chronic inflammation, an immune response that can alter the way your body regulates your weight, appetite, and hormone levels (15Trusted Source).

Chronic inflammation is linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes (16Trusted Source).

May cause other health problems

In addition to its link to infertility, BPA and other plastics may be related to birth defects and childhood health problems.

There are many different ways that plastics can disrupt healthy embryonal, fetal, or childhood growth because it is able to pass into the placenta and breast milk (14Trusted Source).

Developing fetuses can’t break down BPA, making them more sensitive to exposure. Some evidence suggests that BPA exposure in utero can affect gene expression, which may contribute to a variety of health problems — including an increased risk of obesity and metabolic disease (14Trusted Source).

Low levels of BPA exposure have also been linked to the development of certain cancers, including ovarian cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Additionally, there’s some evidence from test-tube studies that BPA may make chemotherapy drugs less effective (17Trusted Source).

However, remember that more research is needed to support a better understanding of the effects of BPA exposure on humans.

SUMMARY

BPA exposure has been linked to several health problems, including infertility, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

How to minimize your exposure

While we need more research, BPA does appear to be linked to some negative effects. You may wish to limit your exposure to BPA.

Although eradicating it completely may be impossible, there are some effective ways to reduce your exposure:

Limit packaged foods that aren’t labeled “BPA-free.” Eat mostly fresh, whole foods. Limit canned foods or foods packaged in plastic containers labeled with recycling numbers 3 or 7. However, BPA-free packaging may not be an adequate solution, either, as we’ll discuss later.

Drink from glass bottles. Buy liquids that come in glass bottles instead of plastic bottles or cans, and use glass baby bottles instead of plastic ones.

Be selective with toys. Make sure that any plastic toys you buy for children are made from BPA-free material — especially toys that little ones are likely to chew or suck on.

Don’t microwave plastic. Microwave and store food in glass rather than plastic, since heating BPA-containing plastics may cause more BPA leaching (2Trusted Source).

SUMMARY

There are several simple ways to reduce your exposure to BPA from your diet and environment. Limiting your use of paper and plastic products that don’t bear the “BPA-free” label is a good place to start.

Are BPA alternatives safe?

It’s worth noting that many BPA-free products have replaced BPA with bisphenol-S (BPS) or bisphenol-F (BPF), compounds that are similar in structure and function to BPA — but that haven’t yet been as heavily studied for their safety.

However, the research that does exist suggests that even small concentrations of BPS and BPF may leach into food and disrupt the function of your cells in ways similar to BPA. Thus, BPA-free plastics may not be an adequate solution (2Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).

A better alternative may be to limit or avoid plastics altogether, especially for foods and beverages.

That means replacing plastic drinking bottles with glass or stainless steel, avoiding bottled water in plastic bottles, and purchasing food that’s not packaged in plastic or cans lined with BPA-containing plastics.

Replacing all of your plastic containers or household supplies may seem daunting, but there are more options available than ever to help you do just that.

For kids, you can now purchase glass or stainless steel baby bottles or water bottles, and the brand RocketBox sells kid-friendly, stainless steel lunchboxes that are perfect for school lunches.

Food manufacturers are moving away from plastic or plastic-lined packaging as well. You may find more items that used to be packaged in plastic are now packaged in glass, cardboard, or biodegradable materials.

SUMMARY

BPA alternatives, like BPS and BPF, may not be safe — despite being a common addition to items that are labeled “BPA-free.”

The bottom line

In light of the evidence, it’s best to take some steps to limit your BPA exposure.

In particular, pregnant people may benefit from avoiding BPA, especially during the early stages of pregnancy.

As for others, occasionally drinking from a plastic bottle or eating from a can is not a reason to panic. That said, swapping plastic containers for glass or stainless steel is a small change that may support your health in the long-term.

If you aim to eat fresh, whole, and minimally-processed foods, you’ll automatically limit your BPA exposure.

Just one thing

Try this today: Take a few minutes to research plastic-free alternatives to some of the commonly-used plastic items in your household. Rather than trying to go completely plastic-free all at once, replacing a few items at home is a great way to start without the stress.

Last medically reviewed on April 12, 2022

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