7 Ways to Reduce Toxins in Your Kitchen
Are harmful chemicals lurking in or near your food? Follow these simple steps to minimize exposure and get them out.Posted Oct 26, 2016
As we lovingly prepare nourishing food in our kitchens, we sometimes inadvertently introduce compounds we’re better off avoiding. From phthalates to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a variety of toxins can lurk in and around our food despite our best intentions to keep them out. And though it’s a smart choice to eat organic, cutting the toxins directly from meals doesn’t end with the food you buy. Don’t want industrial chemicals in your pumpkin bread? Use these seven methods to make your kitchen as healthy as possible.
1. Seek Safer Storage
Plastic containers and food packaging may leach compounds such as bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and phthalates into the food they touch. Hundreds of chemicals are used to make plastics, many of which are known “chemicals of concern” linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, and chronic disease. Many others lack sufficient data proving their safety. Because we generally can’t know what’s in our plastics, it’s prudent to choose inert materials like glass, ceramic, and metal wherever possible. You can also opt for eco-friendly replacements for plastic wrap and skip the BPA in your leftovers.
2. Skip Non-stick
You may have heard concerns about the Teflon in your frying pans, but other types of nonstick coatings could also pose threats to human health. In 2015, over 200 scientists from around the globe issued the Madrid Statement to warn of the dangers of chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These substances are commonly used to make nonstick coatings, not only for pans, but also for bakeware, rice cookers, and slow cookers. They are also used on some pizza boxes and food wrap. Though product manufacturers have responded to concerns about the “long-chain” versions of these compounds, the “short chain” replacements lack safety data conclusively showing they don’t act similarly in the body and the environment.
Since we know so little about the safety of new nonstick coatings, stainless steel, cast iron, glass, and ceramic are wiser choices. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan works just as well as nonstick for most cooking tasks and can last for generations. For those concerned about scratching their glass cooktops, cast-iron pans are now available with enamel coatings on the outside only. Flat-bottomed, stainless steel pans also work well for glass cooktops, along with ceramic alternatives.
And what about cooking sprays? Although they’re convenient, most contain highly processed oils extracted under high heat from common GMO crops like canola, corn, or soy. Many also contain chemical propellants such as propane or butane. You’re better off with some healthy fats added to your pan with a reusable cooking spray bottle. Today’s models are time-tested to emit a fine mist without clogging. Top yours up with your oil of choice—avocado, coconut or olive are popular choices.
3. Cook Safer
Gas ovens and stoves allow combustion by-products, including carbon monoxide, into your kitchen. Be sure to run a vent fan during cooking to remove fumes, and install a carbon monoxide detector to alert you to emissions that might cause low-level, chronic exposure. Consider also making your next stove electric. If you live in an airtight house, or if you don’t have a sealed combustion venting system, consider having a backdraft test completed to find out if your kitchen exhaust system is sucking poisonous fumes from wood burning or vented gas appliances back into your house. An energy assessment auditor in your area generally performs these tests. Bringing some greenery into your kitchen can also improve air quality. Plants known to remove toxins from the air are a beautiful addition to any room, so make a place for them in the kitchen if you can.
Pay attention to some of your smaller appliances as well. While you may avoid putting hot foods or liquids in plastic, that’s essentially what every drip coffeemaker does. An espresso maker or all-glass and metal French presses might be smarter options. Plastic electric kettles can likewise be replaced with metal ones.
4. Clean Green
Commercial cleaners contain thousands of unregulated chemicals, many of which are known health hazards, like 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde. The Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning evaluates 2,500 cleaners for chemical safety, so you can look up your cleaners and make informed decisions. As a general rule, look for plant-based, biodegradable soaps and cleaners. Enzymatic drain cleaners are a less toxic option for dealing with clogs. You can also make your own cleaning products with simple ingredients commonly found in the kitchen. Many cleaning projects can be tackled with nothing more than water, soap, vinegar, and baking soda.
All-purpose cleaner: A 1:4 solution of vinegar and water is a great all-purpose cleaner for surfaces, windows, and more. A few drops of essential oils like peppermint, lavender, tea tree, or sweet orange add a pleasant scent and make the cleaner more effective. Castile soap diluted in water works well for many routine cleaning jobs and can be added to your all-purpose cleaner or homemade scrubs for extra cleaning power.
Disinfectant: Undiluted vinegar disinfects surfaces and removes stubborn stains.
Homemade scrub: A simple paste of baking soda and water works well as a sink or pan scrub and can loosen baked-on food from the inside of your oven, so you can skip the noxious chemical oven cleaners.
5. Choose Non-Toxic Kitchen Materials
The construction of your kitchen will affect the air quality in your house for years to come. When you remodel, choose counters and cabinetry that don’t use formaldehyde in their binders or VOCs in their finishes. Flooring and painting choices should also limit VOCs and other chemicals such as PVC, found in vinyl flooring. Go for natural materials and use non-toxic finishes wherever possible.
6. Filter Your Water
Sadly, most drinking water is contaminated with everything from agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals to heavy metals. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group reveals that 75% of Americans’ drinking water contains concerning levels of chromium-6, the carcinogen at the center of the Erin Brockovich case.
A home water test can tell you about some of the contaminants in your drinking water, and your municipal water service should issue annual reports indicating which contaminants have been found in their tests. The Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database has results from a five-year period of testing that’s searchable by zip code. Note that municipalities only test for select contaminants. Make sure any water filter you consider has been tested by a third-party lab to remove the contaminants you’re concerned about. Most commonly available pitcher filters remove relatively few; do your research and invest in a thorough filter that will give you safer water.
7. Use Natural Pest Control Products
Ants, pantry moths, and fruit flies can be annoying, but you can eliminate them with natural methods rather than harmful pesticides that don’t belong near your food. Most kitchen insects can be controlled with essential oils and food-based deterrents like citrus peels, diatomaceous earth or non-toxic traps. Mint, for example, is an effective repellent for ants—add it to your counter cleaner when ants invade, or place mint leaves from your garden by their entry points.
Taking these steps to reduce toxins in your kitchen will help ensure that the foods you prepare—as well as the spaces where you prepare it—are as healthy as possible.
Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.