Endocrine Disruptors and Food

Endocrine disrupting chemicals, which can interfere with the hormone system, potentially harming people’s ability to have kids, and children’s healthy development, have been in the news a lot lately. These chemicals have been identified in a wide range of personal care products. What’s not as well known, is that foods may also be an important pathway of exposure to endocrine disruptors.

Not surprisingly, Europe is ahead of the United States in testing foods for endocrine disruptors. Since 2004, a network of European scientists, called CASCADE, has published over one hundred papers that assess whether foods contain endocrine disruptors. They have discovered that there’s real reason for concern.

As the CASCADE scientists point out, because endocrine disruptors are more likely to build up in animal fat, and because most people high on the food chain, they are likely to be exposed to foods with higher levels of endocrine disruptors.

The scientists recommend:

In order to avoid exposure to endocrine disruptors, the consumer can choose food coming from the bottom of the food chain or certified organic food.

In other words, eat less meat and fish, eat less fatty foods such as dairy products, and if you do eat these foods, make sure they are organic.

There are still many open questions about endocrine disruptors in our food supply.

The US government could begin to answer these questions by advancing food testing that includes the full range of health risks we are exposed to, not just pesticide poisoning. The US Environmental Protection Agency has been developing a testing program for over a decade now, yet has achieved little. President Obama should request that the EPA make food testing a priority.

This post was written by Professor Alastair Iles is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Iles studies science, technology, and environment, with a focus on how technologies – ranging from chemistry, energy systems, environmental health monitoring, to information technology – affect society and the environment. He received his PhD in Environmental Law and Policy from Harvard University, and previously studied Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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3 Responses to Endocrine Disruptors and Food

  1. Logan Smith says:

    The concentration effect up the food chain is a rational approach and a logical place to start on the subject of endocrine disruption in food however I feel you have left out alot of useful information the CASCADE group has published. Your article cites animal fats as likely source of potential endocrine disruptors but your exclusion of other sources in the food chain is an oversimplification of this group’s research. Your article implies that animal products are the predominant problem and endocrine disruptors in other foods like organic plants is more dilute and safer. To the contrary, Some food examples like soy and broccoli also have relatively high levels of phytoestrogens that can act as significant endocrine disruptors and contradict the ‘eat lower on the food chain’ recommendation. I agree with your point that animal products should be consumed in moderation (for a variety of reasons) however to be more precise, holistic, and less bias one should also mention non-animal foods containing significant sources of endocrine disruptors. By focusing solely on animal products many of your vegetarian and vegan readers may not recognize the significance of this problem and may not have the opportunity to acknowledge the presence of endocrine disruptors in their own diet.

    Logan Smith
    Davis, CA

    *P.s. Thank you for this fantastic resource. The Good Guide is a fantastic tool for building an informed democratic marketplace! 🙂

  2. marinda louw says:

    "endocrine disrupting chemical" seems like a scary term, marketing fear as a means to move the masses to organic food?
    I would like to know what this term means, how these ‘chemicals’ work and what we should be looking for on food labels.
    I am in favour in consuming food in as natural state and produced as sustainable and packaged in recyclable and safe material, but using a very broad term without thoroughly explaining its use and possible dangers is a dangerous way of promoting an emotional response.

    food scientist, South Africa

  3. Logan says:

    To answer Mirinda’s question:

    The term "endocrine disrupting chemical" can be defined as any substance not produced by our bodies that can mimic (cause a similar effect as) the hormones our bodies naturally produce. Many of these "chemical" examples used in the above article, and in the media (e.g. pesticides, plants, animals, and BPA in plastic) are estrogen mimicking chemicals. The fear is that since many hormones in our bodies are balanced, "chemicals" that mimic estrogen in our bodies can "disrupt" our hormone regulatory system and cause this system to become unbalanced. The consequences of "too much" estrogen in our bodies is not completely understood but briefly includes harm to reproductive development in children, decreased fertility in adults, and a greater risk for estrogen based cancers (e.g. breast cancer). I believe that when the author suggests to "buy organic" he means that food under that organic label legally precludes pesticides (a common source of endocrine disrupting chemicals). 🙂

    For more detail see the authors link above to the CASCADE article on a similar topic. 🙂

    University of California, Davis, USA

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