How Much Chemical Are You Eating?

In our new world of plastic-free living and organic everything, you’d think our food and favourite products would be free of chemical compounds. Well think again... 


So you’ve ditched any products containing fish-damaging microbeads, it’s been months since you even looked at a plastic straw, and you’ve bought a new handbag big enough for your precious resusable cup. That must mean you’re chemical-free, right? Not quite. Everything we’re made of, touch, smell, taste, and even breathe, is a chemical. Meaning that while some are natural and harmless, others are man-made, and a few even command headlines so alarming, they make us want to start Zorbing to work in a protective, inflatable bubble. But before you start searching Amazon for such a device (we checked—they’re expensive) and binning everything in your bathroom cabinet, listen up. “Our recent obsession with everything organic has made us fearful of anything that can be seen as a chemical additive,” explains Director of the Public Health England Toxicology Unit at Imperial College London, Alan Boobis. “But in most cases, that fear is unjustified,” he adds. Here’s how to recognise and swerve the worst offenders in your everyday life...



FOUND IN: Chargrilled and toasted foods.

WHAT IS IT? The molecule that forms as food browns—think roasted coffee, toast, and spuds—is actually a potentially carcinogenic compound called acrylamide that’s been shown to cause cancer in rats.

SHOULD I WORRY? Not adversely, no, but there are ways to mitigate consumption. Avoid things that are overly chargrilled (which could mean steering clear of your local kebab shop). Also, skip frozen chips, as processed food and potatoes can be high in this chemical. But essentially, don’t decimate your toast and you’ll be fine.

CAN I SWERVE IT? Time to up your quota of raw and steamed food. “To avoid acrylamide at home, that means no roasting, baking, or toasting,” Alan explains. “No biscuits, no bread, no toast. That’s the reality.” And a miserable one. Strike a middle ground and minimise your acrylamide consumption by blanching potatoes before cooking, and aiming for a golden yellow colour when toasting and frying. As for coffee: the chemical in it is so low-risk there’s no need to worry. Phew.



FOUND IN: Plastic bottles and containers, televisions, kettles, and the lining of tin cans.

WHAT IS IT? A chemical with a murky reputation, last year BPA was declared an endocrine disruptor by The European Chemicals Agency—a chemical that upsets hormones and has been linked to an array of illnesses. In 2013, the Bureau of Indian Standards revised the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, and banned the use of BPA in feeding bottles.

SHOULD I WORRY? Well, if you’re chomping down on boxed noodles, then yes (for many reasons, really). But as levels are so low, you’d have to get through a hell of a lot of Heinz before you’d see any effects from tin cans. It’s important to regularly replace and recycle any plastic food containers you use, too. If you’re going to be heating plastic, it’s better to go BPA-free altogether, as the microwaving process has been shown to cause more of the chemical to leach out.

CAN I SWERVE IT? You can easily get hold of BPA-free plastic containers and bottles that can be heated or used for hot liquid, or just opt for glass or metal instead.




FOUND IN: Beauty products (and occasionally some processed foods too, listed as E214, E217, E218 and E219).

WHAT ARE THEY? Topping any organic-beauty junkie’s list of worst offenders, parabens—preservatives that stop mould and bacteria breaking out in your moisturiser—first hit headlines in 2004 when they were found in breast-tumour tissues, raising fears they may be linked to cancer because they mimic the effect of oestrogen in the body. That study, however, has been widely criticised, and while parabens may have a weak, oestrogen-like effect, there just aren’t enough in cosmetics to pose a problem.

SHOULD I WORRY? Scientists disagree about how relevant this research is to people—studies on the direct effects of parabens on humans yet to be carried out.

CAN I SWERVE THEM? There’s no concrete proof you need to, but The Body Shop has proudly stated that 80% of its products are paraben-free if you want to avoid them. Already a committed paraben- avoider? Stick to the product’s use-by-date.



FOUND IN: Fruit and vegetables.

WHAT ARE THEY? Pesticides are among the most tightly-regulated chemicals there are. A number of the most dangerous ones are already illegal. Their replacements are designed to break down quickly, target only a specific set of pests, and require fewer applications to have a lasting effect.

“Pesticides are on a rolling review programme,” Alan says. “If the companies don’t provide regular safety data, their products are taken off the approved list and it is then illegal for them to be sold.” The amount of pesticides left on food have to meet limits set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to ensure they’re safe, and any imported foods have to conform to the same rules. In India, the Registration Committee of the Central Insecticide Board has the final say on the amount of pesticides to be used on crops.


Yes and no—fresh food will have pesticide residues, but levels are so low, our bodies can flush them out. But it’s bad news for the bees (who are crucial to our survival, and having a tough time lately), as the University of California found pesticides are harmful to them and impair their ability to forage.

CAN I SWERVE THEM? You don’t need to worry, but give your body a helpful hand at flushing out any lingering pesticides by making sure you consume plenty of filtered water and fibre. And wash your fresh produce—though pesticides are usually inside the fruit, this will help eliminate any other nasties hanging around your salad.

GOOD NEWS: Some pesticides are already illegal.



Photograph: Irina Usova