Food scientists are shedding light on items loaded with toxins and chemicals—and simple swaps for a cleaner diet and supersized health.
Clean eating means choosing fruits, vegetables and meats that are raised, grown and sold with minimal processing. Often they're organic, and rarely (if ever) should they contain additives. But in some cases, the methods of today's food producers are neither clean nor sustainable. The result is damage to our health, the environment, or both. So we decided to take a fresh look at food through the eyes of the people who spend their lives uncovering what's safe—or not—to eat. We asked them a simple question: "What foods do you avoid?" Their answers don't necessarily make up a "banned foods" list. But reaching for the suggested alternatives might bring you better health—and peace of mind.
What the endocrinologist won't eat: canned tomatoes
Fredrick Vom Saal, Ph.D., is an endocrinologist at the University of Missouri who studies bisphenol-A.
The problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately, acidity (a prominent characteristic of tomatoes) causes BPA to leach into your food. Studies show that the BPA in most people's body exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. "You can get 50 mcg of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that's a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young," says vom Saal. "I won't go near canned tomatoes.''
The solution: Choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Bionaturae and Coluccio. You can also get several types in Tetra Pak boxes, like Trader Joe's and Pomi.
Budget tip: If your recipe allows, substitute bottled pasta sauce for canned tomatoes. Look for pasta sauces with low sodium and few added ingredients, or you may have to adjust the recipe.
Too busy to cook? Eat what the nutritionist would eat at a fast-food place.
What the farmer won't eat: corn-fed beef
Joel Salatin is co-owner of Polyface Farms and author of half a dozen books on sustainable farming.
The problem: Cattle evolved to eat grass, not grains. But farmers today feed their animals corn and soybeans, which fatten up the animals faster for slaughter. But more money for cattle farmers (and lower prices at the grocery store) means a lot less nutrition for us. A recent comprehensive study conducted by the USDA and researchers from Clemson University found that compared with corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), calcium, magnesium and potassium; lower in inflammatory omega-6s; and lower in saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease. "We need to respect the fact that cows are herbivores, and that does not mean feeding them corn and chicken manure," says Salatin.
The solution: Buy grass-fed beef, which can be found at specialty grocers, farmers' markets and nationally at Whole Foods. It's usually labeled because it demands a premium, but if you don't see it, ask your butcher.
Budget tip: Cuts on the bone are cheaper because processors charge extra for deboning. You can also buy direct from a local farmer, which can be as cheap as $5 per pound. To find a farmer near you, search eatwild.com.