I'm a Mom and a Pediatrician: Here's How I Limit My Family's Exposure To Harmful Chemicals During Mealtime

Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, a board-certified pediatrician and mom of three, shares simple steps to protect your family against harmful chemicals found in food and common household goods.

I'm a Mom and a Pediatrician
Photo: Kailey Whitman

When the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement on food additives in 2018, it highlighted the harmful health effects of chemicals found in our food system. According to the AAP, there are more than 10,000 additives allowed in the U.S. to preserve, package, or modify the taste, look, texture, or nutrients in foods. The problem is there is significant evidence that these chemicals disrupt a child's hormone system, which is crucial for normal growth and development. These chemicals have been linked with obesity and premature puberty, as well as cognitive and learning disabilities.

So what can you do as a parent to limit your child's exposure to these types of hormone-disrupting chemicals during mealtime?

As a pediatrician and mom of three, here are a few simple steps I have taken to keep my family meals as safe as possible.

Avoid Paper Receipts

When you're at the grocery store, simply say no to paper receipts and instead request an electronic version. That paper is coated with BPA—one of the many chemicals in a family called bisphenols, an endocrine (hormone) disruptor that can change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and possibly affect the nervous and immune systems. Refusing it helps decrease your exposure to that chemical while saving the landfill one more unnecessary piece of trash. (Sadly, that receipt is not recyclable.)

Know What Foods To Buy

Adjusting your grocery shopping list can go a long way. First, try not to consume canned foods, as almost all have detectable levels of bisphenol in the lining. Research shows that canned food exposure contributes to the BPA levels found in the urine of humans, and it's a chemical not naturally found in our bodies. The amount of urinary BPA increased with the number of canned foods people were using, and specifically with canned vegetables and fruit, pasta, and soup. The takeaway? Try to avoid or limit canned foods and rather choose fresh, loose, and as-whole-as-possible when buying foods. You can buy produce at a farmers' market and get foods like bread, pasta, beans, and nuts from bulk stores where you can refill your own containers.

It's also a good idea to eat lower on the food chain. Processed meats contain toxic chemicals, so try a meatless Monday to start and gradually increase your frequency of plant-based foods.

Choose Organic

When possible, opt for organic foods to limit your exposure to pesticides. If you can't do 100 percent organic, then try to at least choose organic for produce that doesn't have a peel or a rind that you typically discard. For example, I chose organic for produce that is especially vulnerable to absorbing pesticides, like strawberries, cherries, spinach, kale, apricots, apples, grapes, tomatoes, and bell peppers. For foods like watermelon, cantaloupe, bananas, and oranges, I may not prioritize an organic version since there is an outer layer of protection that we remove prior to eating.

Swap Out Plastic

Serve and store food in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic. Plastic dishes and storage containers have chemicals like bisphenol (used to make plastic hard) and phthalates (used to make plastic flexible) that will transfer into the food your child is eating. Phthalates, like BPA, are an endocrine (hormone) disruptor and can affect pubertal development, increase childhood obesity, and may affect the cardiovascular system. That's why I founded Ahimsa, the world's first colorful stainless-steel dishes for kids.

If you must use plastic, then avoid plastics with the recycling number 3 (phthalate), 6 (styrene which is thought to be a carcinogen), or 7 (BPA), and avoid putting those plastic dishes in the microwave or dishwasher because heat makes the chemicals transfer even more. Also make sure to check for any etching, scratching, or fraying—if your plastic dishes have those, it's time to stop using them because these defects increase the chance chemicals entering the food your child is eating.

Get the Right Cookware

When cooking, avoid non-stick pans since they contain a harmful class of chemicals called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) which can leach from the coating into your food. This group of human-made chemicals makes products durable, non-stick, and resistant to heat. They are known as the "forever chemicals" because they do not break down in the environment. They also have effects on the hormone system, immune system, kidney and liver systems, and may even increase cholesterol levels. You can choose cast iron or stainless steel for your cookware instead.

The Bottom Line

While you likely can't eliminate all of these chemicals from your daily life, taking small simple steps, like shopping smarter and swapping out plastics, can lead to a big impact for your child's health and the future of our planet.

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