(Cross-posted from HarvardExtensionHUB)

Whether you’re aware of them or not, every day we are exposed to synthetic chemicals in the water and food we consume. For more than a decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been monitoring chemical exposures within the US population, with more than 200 compounds included in their most recent tests.

While we can’t always control these exposures, we can reduce some risks by making informed choices. Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Heath and co-instructor of From Farm to Fork: Why What You Eat Matters, provides the following guidelines.

We've excerpted portions of Dr. Adamkiewicz's post below. Read the entire post

Avoiding residues on food

Go organic: Organic agriculture uses natural methods for soil enrichment and pest control instead of genetically modified organisms.

Go semi-organic: Each year, the Environmental Working Group  publishes the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The fruits and vegetables tested with the highest and lowest levels end up on their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, respectively.

  • Tip #1: Focus your organic dollars on purchases from the Dirty Dozen and save a few bucks by purchasing conventional produce from the Clean Fifteen. It’s not a guarantee that levels will be low, but the odds are better.
  • Tip #2: Print the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists and keep them in your wallet as a reference when you shop.

You can also use these other rules of thumb for shopping and eating:

  • Contamination can be skin deep: Since some residues are on the surface only, go organic when you will be consuming the entire fruit, skin and all (strawberries and apples). If the fruit has a thick skin or peel that is discarded (bananas and pineapples), go conventional.
  • Wash the bad stuff away: Thoroughly washing produce can reduce (not eliminate) some surface residues.
  • Mix it up: Eating a variety of produce from different sources will limit the possibility of high exposure from a vegetal hot-spot.  

Avoiding Contaminants

Where possible in your home and kitchen, store food in glass containers, and avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers, especially fatty foods that can easily absorb chemicals that may leach from plastics. Keep any products that contain chemicals, like surface cleaners, away from your food.

Avoid Problematic Ingredients

Bottom line: Limit your exposure to processed foods and maximize the whole and natural foods in your diet. As Michael Pollan has said, “Avoid foods that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

If you haven’t already panicked, don’t

Become an informed consumer. Avoiding chemical exposures should not necessarily be your primary focus in making your dinner decisions. A healthy, balanced diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits, favors whole grains over processed grains, limits animal products, and includes healthy fats. But I’ll leave the healthy diet advice to my Farm to Fork co-instructor Dr. P.K. Newby, who has covered many of these issues in her blog, Play a Good Knife and Fork.