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Safer Food For a Healthier You

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Pickles, Lettuce, Mayo … Hold the Estrogen continued...

“It really depends on how you look at the science,” Minowa tells WebMD. “Many industry-funded studies show no risk, but there are independent studies that suggest” a potential cancer risk from hormones in milk.

Hormone-treated meat has long been suspected of contributing to early puberty in children, although the link has not been proven. There’s no question that the age of puberty has been decreasing in the U.S. But some suggest that’s due to improved nutrition and health, not to second helpings of hormones in children’s diets.

The effects are very hard to study, experts say, because hormones are naturally present in both food and our bodies. Plus, the effects could be subtle and take years to show up.

The amount of hormone that enters a person’s bloodstream after eating hormone-treated meat is small compared with the amount of estrogen a person produces daily. However, even low levels of hormones can have strong effects on some body processes.

Responding to the lack of certainty, the European Union has banned all hormones in beef, and Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU have banned rBGH. No major studies are under way in the U.S. to evaluate the safety of hormones in meat and milk.

Produce and Pesticide Residue

Farmers use pesticides on many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The EPA sets limits on how much pesticide residue can remain on food. It’s a complex process that’s not easy to understand, incorporating variables such as the toxicity of the pesticide and how much of the food people generally eat. At the end, each of the 9,700 pesticides (at last count, in 1996) receives a number called a “tolerance.”

The EPA, FDA, and USDA all play a role in ensuring pesticides on our food don’t exceed the tolerances. In 1999, 40% of U.S. produce tested by the government contained pesticide residue. About 1% of domestically produced and 3% of the imported food had levels that violated standards.

While those numbers might seem reassuring, skeptics point out that no one could possibly test all the food grown or imported into the U.S. Even 1% of the total produce in the U.S. is a huge amount, Gillman points out.

And although pesticide tolerances are assumed to be safe, these chemicals are by their very nature toxic, and haven’t been studied directly in people.

According to Minowa, the individual safety profiles of pesticides don’t take into consideration any hazard from their combined effects. “Take a box of [cereal] off the shelf, and you can find residues from 32 pesticides,” Minowa says. “Each one is within its tolerance, but what’s the effect of those chemicals acting in combination in our bodies?”

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Do you buy organic food?