What's in Your Food?

Your doctor or midwife will give you lots of information about eating a balanced diet and the types of foods you should and shouldn't eat while pregnant. Now that you are eating for two, you need to pay even closer attention to the amount of calcium, iron, protein, vitamins, and minerals that you eat each day. You also need to think carefully about the health and safety of all the foods in your diet.

The foods you eat during your pregnancy give you the energy you need to get through each day and provide your baby with the nutrients she needs to grow. Your food selections also make a difference to the health of the environment in which you will raise your baby. It is important to avoid toxins in your diet to improve your health, lower your risk of illness, and reduce your growing baby's exposure to dangerous toxins.

The next time you sit down to a meal, take a good look at the food on your plate. There was a time when you could take for granted that these foods contained nothing but the most natural ingredients. But that's no longer the case. Now, foods that you once considered healthy like fruits, vegetables, and meats are laden with chemicals, like pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified ingredients.

In addition, almost 90 percent of foods sold at the grocery store are processed in some way. During this processing, chemical additives and preservatives are added to improve the food's flavor, appearance, or shelf life.

Fortunately, it is easy to make better decisions about the foods you put on your plate and in your body. By avoiding foods that you know are heavily contaminated and selecting locally produced, organic varieties instead, you can significantly reduce the amount of toxins in your diet, and the amount of toxins that your baby will be exposed to during your pregnancy.

Additives and Preservatives

Chances are any ingredient on a food's ingredient label that you don't recognize (or cannot pronounce) is a chemical food additive or preservative. Most processed foods contain additives and preservatives in order to improve their flavor, make them look more natural, and help them last longer on the shelf. Processed foods lose many of their natural flavors and colors during the heating and preparation required to can or package them, so food manufacturers also rely on these chemicals to restore foods to a more natural appearance, texture, and flavor. For instance, “chicken flavor” is added to McDonald's Chicken McNuggets to make them taste like chicken again after processing.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for overseeing the food manufacturing industry, more than 3,000 food additives are currently approved for use in the United States. These chemicals have all been approved for humans to eat, but many are still linked to a number of frightening health effects like allergies, asthma, cancer, and even birth defects.

Some food additives, like sulfites and monosodium glutamate (MSG), are so commonly associated with reactions like nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, or dizziness that they are required by law to be listed prominently on a product's packaging.

During pregnancy, your health care provider will probably talk to you about avoiding certain food additives called nitrates. Nitrates are added to cured meats like hot dogs, bacon, and sausages to improve flavor and prevent spoiling. But once they get in your body, nitrates form nitrosamines — carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds that are harmful for both pregnant moms and their growing babies.

Unfortunately, you may not always realize that there are additives in the food you eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to list all ingredients on product labels. But some additives are simply listed as spices or artificial flavoring, making it difficult for consumers to know exactly what's on their plate.

Here is a list of some of the most common chemicals you will find in processed foods:

  • Aspartame: Used as a sweetener.

  • Benzoates: Used primarily in acidic foods to prevent bacterial growth.

  • Butylated Hydroxy Anisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): Used as flavor enhancers.

  • Carrageenan: Used to create a smooth texture and thicken foods.

  • Cochineal: Added to improve the coloring and appearance of foods.

  • Disodium Guanylate: Added to enhance flavor.

  • FD&C Red No. 40: Used to improve color.

  • Nitrates and Nitrites: Added to prevent discoloration in meat.

  • Potassium Sorbate: Used for killing mold.

  • Propionic Acid: Used to prevent the growth of mold.

  • Propylene Glycol: Used to thicken and improve texture of food.

  • Titanium Dioxide: Added to give foods a whiter coloring.

How can I find eco-friendly food on the go?

Patronize restaurants that use local and organic foods in their selections. Ask your server if they incorporate healthier green foods into their recipes. Review the Eat Well Guide for a list of restaurants that use local, sustainable ingredients. Try to minimize waste by using the minimum amount of paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups.

Inspect food labels carefully and look for those that contain the minimum number of food additives and preservatives. Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products to limit your exposure.

Genetically Modified Ingredients

A few decades ago, scientists started looking for ways to improve our food supply by altering the genetic makeup of certain crops and livestock. For instance, by tinkering with the genetic code of a corn plant, scientists were able to create a strain of corn that is more resistant to pests, disease, and weather conditions. This genetic modification, therefore, improves the success of the crop and makes it easier and cheaper for farmers to produce food. However, a number of concerns have been raised regarding the health and safety of these genetically modified crops both for humans and the environment as a whole.

The majority of genetic modifications of crops are engineered to improve a plant's resistance to pesticides. That way, farmers can douse crops with pesticides meant to kill weeds and pests without harming the intended crop.

About 70 percent of the processed foods on store shelves contain genetically modified ingredients. Genetically modified versions of the following foods have been approved for commercial use: alfalfa, cherry tomatoes, chicory, corn, cotton, flax, papayas, potatoes, rapeseed (canola), rice, soybeans, squash, sugar beets, and tomatoes. To be safe, choose organic varieties of these foods or look for products labeled GMO Free.

Scientists are also researching ways to genetically engineer farm animals. Chickens, for instance, have been genetically modified to lay lower cholesterol eggs and certain salmon species have been engineered to grow five times faster than wild species.

The problem is that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the safety of these genetically modified foods, for both environmental and human health. Because the science is so new, researchers don't yet have solid information about the future consequences of changing the genetic makeup of plants and animals. In Europe, foods made with genetically modified ingredients must be clearly labeled as such on their packaging, so that consumers know if the foods they are eating have been altered. Unfortunately, there is no such law yet requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods that are sold in the United States.


Pesticides are the chemicals that farmers use to kill the pests, like weeds, rodents, and insects that might otherwise harm a crop and hinder its growth. About 300 different pesticides are used to grow the foods you see on super-market shelves every day. These pesticides harm the environment by polluting the soil, air, and water, and altering the environment of fish, birds, and other wildlife. The farm workers who come in contact with these pesticides are also at risk. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pesticides are responsible for 20,000–40,000 work-related poisonings each year in the United States.

There are also concerns about the health risks associated with pesticides once they hit your plate. One study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, found pesticides present in the urine and saliva of children who ate conventionally grown produce. The most prominent pesticides found were malathion and chlorpyrifos, two chemicals that are banned for use in homes, but are still widely used on crops. These types of pesticides work by poisoning the nervous system in pests. In humans, they can cause damage to the nervous system, organ damage, behavior disorders, immune system dysfunction, behavioral abnormalities, and hormone disruption.

In other words, they really are not chemicals that you want in your body, especially when you are pregnant. Fortunately, you can minimize or even eliminate your exposure to most pesticides by making the switch to organic fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products. In the study mentioned above, when children were switched to a diet that consisted of only organic produce, the pesticides disappeared almost immediately.

Synthetic Hormones

Hormones are compounds that are found in all animals, including humans. In the body, they naturally control important functions such as growth, development and reproduction.

However, for a number of years, synthetic hormones have been injected into certain types of farm animals in order to increase production or increase an animal's weight gain. The USDA and FDA contend that these hormones are safe, but many health advocates argue that hormone residues in meat and milk might be harmful to human and environmental health.

In 1950, the average dairy cow produced roughly 5,300 pounds of milk each year. Today, a typical dairy cow produces more than 18,000 pounds of milk each year. Why the increase? America's dairy cows are now given a genetically engineered hormone called rBGH to increase milk production.

The major concern surrounding the use of hormones in farm animals is that the hormone residues may disrupt the hormone balance of the humans who eat them. Birds, fish, and other wildlife are also vulnerable to the hormone residues left behind in the environment through animal feces.

The European Union does not allow the use of hormones in cattle farming, and, since 1988, they have banned the import of hormone-treated beef. The United States, however, currently allows six hormones — estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, trenbolone acetate, and melengestrol acetate — to be used in food production.

Look for meats and dairy products that are certified organic or specifically labeled hormone-free to minimize your baby's exposure to synthetic hormones.

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