It’s easy enough to toss canned goods, frozen foods, and other packaged items into your cart when you’re grocery shopping. But a scan of the ingredients list might leave you wondering: What exactly are you eating?
That’s especially true lately, when headlines about unfamiliar ingredients, chemicals linked to cancer, and microplastics feel inescapable.
When we asked readers to share their biggest health questions for our Real Talk Rx series, we found many of you wanted to know how concerned you should be about chemicals in your food. So we posed this question to our panel of experts.
We’ll get to their answers in a minute. But first, let’s break down the three areas many of us are most worried about:
Experts In This Article
- Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH, a board-certified family medicine physician and District Medical Director at One Medical in North Carolina
- Samuel Mathis, MD, a board-certified family medicine doctor and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch
- Divesh Goel, MD, board-certified family medicine doctor
Many common ingredients in foods, such as ascorbic acid, nitrates, sulfides, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate, can read like a foreign language. These ingredients are typically food preservatives, which allow food to last longer, according to Food Insight. Sometimes they’re less intimidating when translated into everyday language: Ascorbic acid, for instance, is vitamin C.
Any additives included in food are regulated: The FDA includes about 700 food additives on the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
The amount of an ingredient matters, too. Some chemicals may be dangerous at high levels, which is why they’re only permitted at “one-hundredth of the amount that is considered harmful,” per the NLM.
A scary warning from California on packaging
Another potential cause of worry: On some packaging, you may see ominous language along the lines of: “This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”
That warning is required as part of California’s Proposition 65, which was approved in 1986. Under this law, California has created a list of 900+ chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity (think: BPA, a chemical sometimes used in food packaging), and requires businesses to share warnings about them, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
Worth noting: “Not every chemical on the list has been proven to the worldwide scientific community to actually cause cancer in people,” according to the American Cancer Society.
Plus, when it comes to harm, the amount of an ingredient matters, just like with the food additives above. While the Prop 65 list of ingredients takes this into account by setting safe levels for chemicals, these “levels are frequently around 1,000 times lower than levels set by regulatory agencies such as the FDA, EPA and World Health Organization,” according to Food Insight.
News about microplastics
You won’t see microplastics — aka teeny-tiny pieces of plastic — listed as an ingredient on your food, but you’re likely eating them.
That’s because microplastics are found in water, fish and shellfish, salts and sugars, processed foods, and plants, according to a July 2022 review in the International Journal of Food Contamination. It’s possible these tiny bits of plastic harm our health, including potentially messing with your weight, but we need more research to know for sure.
So, are chemicals in food harmful? How worried should we be?
“It depends on what kind of foods you’re eating. In general, I recommend patients follow three rules for healthy eating [popularized by journalist and author Michael Pollan]:
Rule 1 is to eat real food. Eat food your grandparents would have said is food. If you’re eating the stuff humans have been eating for thousands of years, you don’t have to worry about microplastics or other chemicals in your food because you’re eating the actual food and not a processed form of it.
Rule 2 is not eating too much. And rule 3 is eat mostly plants. I’m not saying don’t eat meat, but most of our diet should be plant-based.
There is a list of foods known as the ‘dirty dozen’ in integrative medicine. These are foods that probably should be bought organic because of their tendency to absorb and hold on to pesticides and other chemicals. The dirty dozen include foods like strawberries, dark leafy greens, peaches, apples, and blueberries.
If you notice, most of these are plants that have a very thin skin, or that we eat with the skin on. I’m more concerned about these foods than I am about something like a banana or an avocado—because of the thick outer skin, it’s unlikely they would be as affected by pesticides.”
“What I tell my patients is to eat things that are closer to Earth. An apple you pick is closer to the source than the applesauce you buy in the grocery store.” —Divesh Goel, MD
“Unfortunately, when food is mass-produced in the United States, it isn’t always produced to the highest standards.
Often pesticides and things that in some ways keep the food safe to eat can actually introduce new harmful chemicals into your body. We also hear a lot about E. Coli outbreaks and salmonella outbreaks. A lot of that also has to do with how food is produced in the United States.
In general, if a person can afford it, it’s always best to eat whole foods (things that aren’t as processed), eat organic, or try to find animal products that were perhaps produced in a more humane way—that can actually translate to health benefits.”
“Everybody should be cognizant of what’s in their foods, if they have the capacity to be aware. But some people are worried about survival. Only if you’re higher on Maslow’s Pyramid, with your essential needs met, do you have the capacity to look at what’s in food.
Some level of awareness is important. But unfortunately, unless you move to a different country, or you have, say, a hobby farm, or you have the money, time, and resources to get truly organic foods, it’s probably futile to be overly cognizant because everything has chemicals in it and all of us are going to be exposed.
What I tell my patients is to eat things that are closer to Earth. An apple you pick is closer to the source than the applesauce you buy in the grocery store. You don’t have to memorize anything, you don’t need to know what’s in everything. But the closer it is to the source, probably the better it is going to be for you.”
Eating whole foods—such as fruits and vegetables—more than processed foods can be one way to limit your intake of potentially harmful chemicals.
But of course, even core building blocks of meals—like rice and pasta, or canned items like tomatoes and beans—have been processed in some way, so it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid chemicals in food.
Keep in mind, though, that you’re typically taking in amounts of these ingredients well below the levels at which they may become hazardous to your health.
If you have concerns about specific foods you eat and how they might affect your health, consider reaching out to your doctor or a registered dietitian for more advice.
Confused about your health? Get answers to more common questions in our Real Talk Rx series.
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- Udovicki, B., Andjelkovic, M., Cirkovic-Velickovic, T. et al. Microplastics in food: scoping review on health effects, occurrence, and human exposure. FoodContamination 9, 7 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40550-022-00093-6