Have no fear- your vegetables are loaded with toxins

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

There’s so much fear and uncertainty out there. If you pay any attention to Facebook and Teh Interwebs, the air is killing is, the water is killing us, and, worst of all, our food is killing us. Chemicals!

Let’s straighten out some simple misperceptions. I promise, this won’t hurt.

Truth 1: Your food is loaded with chemicals.

It’s true. A chemical is just a compound or a substance that can be isolated or identified. Water is a chemical, salt is a chemical. Ethyl butanoate, phenylalanine, and aspartic acid are all chemicals, too, and they’re all a natural part of what makes a banana. Some chemical names look scary – like 3-methylbut-1-YL-ethanoate, another banana constituent. Others look friendly, like “ricin.” But ricin isn’t a natural part of rice (it actually comes from the castor bean.) It’s a deadly poison, and just one milligram of it can kill you.


So: all food is all chemicals, and whether or not the name of the chemical is scary has nothing to do with how much or how little it might harm you.


 Truth 2: Your food is loaded with pesticides, too.

OK, I get it—“chemical” is just shorthand for “bad chemical”. And by “bad chemicals”, we mean pesticides and preservatives and toxins.

By that definition, your fruits and veggies are loaded with “bad chemicals”, too. They’re put there by nature. Plants are not just happy organisms that are here to feed us. They’ve evolved, too, in a natural world filled with plant parasites, plant predators, and other plants that want to steal their nutrients and sunshine. So plants have developed plenty of chemicals themselves that act as “natural” toxins to give them a competitive advantage over other organisms. Plants make all sorts of toxins and chemicals specifically to prevent fungal and parasitic attacks, to make them taste less appealing when fruit is unripe, and to make them taste more appealing when fruits ripen.

A classic study, from 1990, illustrated this well. Dr, Bruce Ames and colleagues found that 99.99% by weight of the “pesticides”—the chemicals that kill pests—that they found in foods were made by the foods themselves. For instance, cabbage, good old cabbage, contains terpenes (isomenthol, carvone), cyanides (1-cyano-2,3-epithiopropane), and phenols (3-cafffoylquinic acid.) Tasty! All of these, and far more (listed in table 1 of that link and pasted below), are naturally made by cabbage. So the cabbage can survive.

from Ames, et al 1990

from Ames, et al 1990

Adding up the measured quantities of residual synthetic pesticides and related chemicals, Dr. Ames’ team found that the quantity of naturally-occurring pesticides outweighed those added by farmers by 10,000 times. Yes, your veggies are loaded with pesticides. Nature put them there.

By the way—Dr. Bruce Ames is no gadfly. He developed the “Ames test” that remains in wide use to determine if a chemical is a mutagen (a potential carcinogen.)  He is a real scientist who cut his teeth long before we decided anyone can “do the research” with Google.


Truth 3. Natural pesticides are just as harmful as synthetic ones.

We have this romantic, idealized view of nature—it’s nice and filled with bluebirds. In truth, nature is a fearless, relentless monster that can kill you five times before you hit the ground. Every organism competes with every other organism for survival, using claws and teeth and toxins and poisons. Small pox is natural, and it wants to kill you (or wanted to kill you, until we killed it first). Lightning is natural, and volcanoes, and frostbite and starvation and tapeworms and malaria. The natural world and natural things have killed far more organisms than humans ever have or ever will.

But what about those man-made, synthetic chemicals—they’re not “natural”, so maybe they’re more harmful. Let’s ask Dr. Ames. From that same study, in 1990, he showed that of 52 of the natural pesticides he had found in natural food, 27 of them were documented carcinogens. Half of them. Ironically, the proportion of synthetic chemicals that he had found were mutagenic was also about half. In Ames’ study, he said:

We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.

That makes sense, actually—when you let go of that odd romantic view of nature, and realize that natural organisms evolve to compete, it makes sense that natural chemical defenses will be harmful, too. That’s why they exist. Organisms need chemicals to protect them from pests, and there’s no particular reason to think that the chemicals they invent are any more or less harmful than the chemicals we invent.


Truth 4. “Organic foods” have plenty of added pesticides and chemicals.

OK, you might say. But organic foods have no added pesticides or chemicals! Even if the added amount with conventional foods is tiny, why not avoid that tiny added potential risk?

Because organic foods do have added pesticides and chemicals. Plenty of them. Here’s a link from the US government to approved lists of allowed substances, things that can be added to foods that are labeled organic. It includes sub-lists, including “synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production”—tasties like copper oxychloride, lignin sulfonate, and sucrose octanoate esters. You may also enjoy browsing the section on “Non agricultural (nonorganic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic (specified ingredients for food groups)’.” I could list many more scary chemicals (diethylaminoethanol! octadecylamine!) and unpleasant-sounding food additives (catalase from bovine liver!)—but you get the point. Organic, inorganic, natural, synthetic—it’s all chemicals. Organic is not added-pesticide free, not even close.


So: despite what the self-appointed internet experts are telling you, chemicals cannot be avoided—and natural foods contain far more harmful and natural preservatives, pesticides, and “toxins” than we add ourselves. Let’s keep this whole “chemicals in food” scare in perspective. There’s no need to fear what you eat.

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6 Comments on “Have no fear- your vegetables are loaded with toxins”

  1. Supermouse Says:

    Thanks for this!!! I hate fear-mongering food myths. Often, they lead to hilarious comment sections on the internet, but also scary in that there are evidently people who actually believe that microwaved water has negative energy and you shouldn’t drink it.


  2. Middle path mom Says:

    I have followed you articles closely, it is nice to have someone base their parenting advice on science, I see so little of that. I have always felt that achieving a fresh, nutritional, well balanced diet far outweighs concerns about pesticides.

    I did notice however, that the study you refer to is nearing 30 years old. Do you have any more recent studies that support these findings? It would be useful. Just because there isn’t a study doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but given the money at play in the debate around conventional and organic, it seems that there would be enough funding to produce these results a few more times.

    I would love to ignore my concerns around specific foods, like berries for example, that I feel have a high likelihood of being doused given their attractiveness to bugs (backed up by tests of different foods). I look for “pesticide free” at the farmers market, don’t need organic, but if even that is meaningless, life gets easier and cheaper.

    It is when we feel disagreement upon reading something that we should pay the closest attention, so that is what I am going to do. I would like further and more recent reading.



  3. NewMom Says:

    Happy Doctors Appreciation Day and thank you for making the lives of parents a little more worry -free!
    The debate around “chemicals” is even worse when it comes to infant nutrition. After an unsuccessful stunt with breastfeeding that left my baby half-starved we switched to formula and everybody was much better (apart from lingering mommy guilt) but I basically got weekly comments on how I was feeding my son “chemicals” and probably giving him cancer and all that was needed as a proof were the long scary names on the formula can. *sigh*


  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    Middle path, thanks for comment– yes, the Ames study is 30 years old, but I think in a way that’s it’s strength. This isn’t new information. His points are as valid as they ever were– that “natural” plant-based foods are loaded with chemicals, toxins, and pesticides. They evolved that way. And their “organic” and “natural” ingredients are not more or less likely to be harmful than “chemicals” we invent.

    In this post, I’m not talking about any specific food scare, I’m just trying to create some context. You might be interested in some previous posts:



  5. Middle path mom Says:

    Dr. Roy, I am very supportive of your work combating food scares that cause everyone so much unnecessary stress. I have been discussing the post about pesticides with others and I’d like you to consider my father’s response. His beliefs adhere to what science explains as its best and most current understanding of things and I learned my skeptical approach from him. He is also an MD, Anesthesiology. Here is what he had to say:

    “He is right in the facts he lays out but is too relaxed about the unknown potential harm of new chemicals.
    The one big difference between the natural,killer pesticides produced by plants and the synthetic ones:
    The natural ones in plants have been around for a long time and we have learned to avoid eating the ones that would kill us or make us sick(toxic mushrooms, castor bean. purple foxglove, deadly nightshade etc.) The edible plants, with their natural pesticides inside, have been selected as “safe” by thousands of years of eating and barfing.
    The synthetic pesticides by comparison are new compounds. They are tested for some things like the “mutagenicity” mentioned but are not tested for every conceivable deleterious effect on animals (especially by the self policing chemical industry) so surprises will happen.


  6. Dr. Roy Says:

    Middle path, there is wisdom in your father’s response. I didn’t mean to come across as flip about the possible dangers of new chemicals. Blog posts tend to be written too black and white, and I’m probably guilty of that here.

    But– and not to start a new scare!!– evolutionary theory is all about the CURRENT generation surviving to make offspring. If in fact natural chemicals caused long-term risks, say of dying from cancer after the reproductive years, evolution would not select out people who eat those plants. Eeek!


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