Posted tagged ‘food safety’

Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean you have to worry about it

July 31, 2017

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Advocacy groups have been busy lately with their fancy-pants chemicalz detection science instruments, and their press releases have made it into the news. But is there news here, and are these chemicals something parents really need to worry about?

First it was a big lead from the New York Times called “The Chemicals in your Mac and Cheese.” The article started:

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

Oh noes, not high levels! The chemicals they’re talking about are from a family called “phthalates,” which sounds scary and difficult-to-pronounce. (Words shouldn’t start with four consonants. On this we should all agree.) Phthalates have been in wide use for over 80 years in plastics and other compounds. Though they’re not added to cheese, they’re on the coatings of tubes and platforms and whatever else is used in the machinery to make Magic Orange Cheese Powder. Foods with a high surface area (like a powder) are going to come in more contact with it, and a teeny bit of a trace of a few molecules are going to transfer over.

Important point: these chemicals have been in our food for many, many years. What’s changed is that we’ve now got fancy equipment to measure it. The Times story is quoting a kind of press release – not a medical study, or even anything published in the medical journal. It’s a “study” done by a consortium of food advocacy groups. It’s being promoted by an organization called “KleanUpKraft.Org” (Cutesy misspellings are at least as bad as starting words with four consonants, K?) And their “high levels” are in tiny parts per billion, at levels that are very low compared to amounts that cause adverse effects in animal studies.

Just because you can detect a chemical as present doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to hurt you. Mercury and arsenic are part of the natural world around us, and any food tested with equipment that’s sensitive enough will find at least traces of these and many other chemicals. It is not possible to get the values of phthalates or arsenic or many other chemicals down to zero in our foods.

Speaking of chemicals, this week another food advocacy organization announced that they’d found traces of an herbicide (glyphosate, found in Round-Up) in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. And in every flavor tested, too, except Cherry Garcia, which is kind of nasty-tasting anyway (I’m sticking with Chunky Monkey, which wasn’t even tested.) But: their press release didn’t even reveal the levels that they found, only that they found it. Maybe it was one part in a zillion. Who knows? But: Do you think if the value were genuinely high they’d hide it like this? No way. It’s there in some kind of teeny amount, and they’re trying to scare you.

Don’t fall for all of this “The Sky is Falling, There’s Chemicals in My Food” hype. Just because something is hard to pronounce doesn’t make it dangerous, and just because something is present doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you. We’ve all got enough to worry about without being scared of Mac and Cheese and Ice Cream. In fact, a little comfort food in these troubled times would probably be good for all of us. Maybe even the grumps at

By the way, I don’t disagree with one thing – homemade Mac n Cheese is at least as good as that boxed orange stuff. Though sometimes, I won’t deny it, the orange stuff sure does hit the spot…

Food Theater: Grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show

January 25, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen! Step into the Food Theater, and be amazed and befuddled!

Our first star is Chipotle, a chain of restaurants that sells burritos the size of your forearm. Organic (sometimes), GMO-free (sorta), better ingredients, they care about the environment, all of that, and more! You may have heard of a little bacteria called E coli – by the way, that’s found naturally in your own feces, did you know that? – but keep in mind that Chipotle’s food has only been a little bit contaminated with E coli. And norovirus, also naturally found in human poop. It’s not like they were literally selling poop burritos, no sir! Keep your eye on the billboards, and the fact that they claim to be GMO-free, which they’re not, actually. But they say they want to be, and that’s a whole lot more important than selling food free of human excrement! Or selling lunches that have twice the calories any reasonable person needs. Yessir!

Wait, don’t leave! There’s more! Here’s a whole aisle of organic produce, right from your local store! Free of pesticides, unless you count all of the pesticides they’ve decided they can use.  And GMO-free, too. Except they’re not actually GMO-free. And much more nutritious (in terms of, well, not really any more nutritious at all, but this is theater, remember, stop interrupting me.) One thing is for sure: they do cost more!

Look at this item I found in my own kitchen, right here, a tasty cylinder of delicious potato sticks!

That's not how you spell "picnic"

You’ll note, right on the label, it’s GMO-free. Whew! And none of that awful gluten, which I’m told turns you into Hitler. Sure, they’re pretty much just potato chips in stick form – yum! – and you’d have to be pretty dim to think of this as anything but junk food. But GMO- and gluten-free! Sign me up!

GMOs, GMOs, they’re everywhere, amiright? We want food that’s exactly the way it developed in nature. Unfortunately, at the Food Theater today, we can’t show you any examples of that, because every food we eat has been genetically modified by human interventions for hundreds or thousands of years. Still, yeah, slap a GMO-free label on something, and that’s what I want to eat!

And chemicals! Chemicals with weird names! OMG can you believe some foods have chemicals in them?! Unfortunately, again, here at the Food Theater today, we can’t actually show you any examples of any foods that don’t contain chemicals, because it turns out that all foods have actual “substances” in them, and that’s what chemicals are. So we tried to show you how healthy our Bob was – that’s Bob, he worked in the back, he wouldn’t eat any chemicals at all! But he died, because, you know, no food. He died healthy, that’s for sure! Better luck next time, Bob!

New idea: maybe we can come up with a vacuum jar of nothing in it we could show you—not only chemical free, but GMO-free and gluten-free too! A health bonanza!

Well, that just about wraps it up at the Food Theater today. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour, and please help yourself to some tasty snacks – we’re offering both rocks and water, your choice. Though I’m told the water was processed in a facility that also processes peanuts. Better skip dessert.

Have no fear- your vegetables are loaded with toxins

March 30, 2015

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.

Some solid reassurance about BPA – one more thing you don’t need to worry about

February 16, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

Remember BPA? It’s a chemical used in the manufacture of plastic things, food can liners, and lots of other things. For a while, everyone seemed to be worried about it. Stickers started showing up on bottles – “BPA FREE!”—which created all kinds of anxiety among people who had no idea there was BPA in their water bottles to begin with. It’s a scary sounding, chemically kind of thing, bisphenol-A, so we’d be better off without it. Right?

I last wrote about BPA in 2008. It wasn’t worth worrying about then, and it’s even less worth worrying about now.

There have been dozens of studies of BPA over the last few years. I’ll just highlight a few recent ones:

JAMA, 2011. Adults eating canned soup – from ordinary cans manufactured with BPA in the liners – had 1200% percent more BPA in their urine than adults consuming fresh soup. Bloggers like this one completely misunderstood the significance of this, with headlines like “BPA rises 1200% after eating from cans.” Yes, it does rise—IN THE URINE. That’s how you get rid of the stuff. High amounts in the urine are good, it means your body is excreting it. That’s what kidneys do. They’re the real detox system—not the expensive BS from the health food store. Want to rid your body of “toxins”? Drink some water and let your kidneys do their job.

Toxicology Science 2011. Adults consuming a high-BPA diet had blood and urine levels monitored. Urine levels were much higher than blood levels – good! It’s excreted! – and in fact blood levels remained extremely low, or undetectable. BPA doesn’t seem to have a chance to make it into body tissues, or concentrate there. It’s peed out. (This study is reviewed in detail here.)

Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013. High doses of BPA solutions were placed in the mouth of anesthetized beagles, and blood levels showed that this method of administration led to higher absorption of BPA than BPA swallowed into the gut. (Lesson: It may not be a good idea to just hold soup in your mouth for hours. Just swallow it, OK?)

Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2015. To evaluate the potential for oral absorption of BPA in humans, adult volunteers were fed warm tomato soup with added BPA—after coating their mouths with every spoonful, they swallowed it. This recreated a genuine eating experience better than the beagle studies (the dogs were anesthetized and their BPA just sat in their mouths.) In this human study, BPA levels in the blood remained low, and as has been observed previously, almost all of the BPA absorbed was quickly deactivated and excreted in the urine.

What’s the harm in replacing BPA in food containers? There’s always a trade-off. Those other kinds of plastics may be more hazardous.

BPA is just one of many “chemical” bugaboos to attract media attention. Caramel coloring? Eek! BHT? Lawds! There are entire industries out there making money off of food fears and nutrition fears. And vaccine fears. There’s enough unnecessary fear out there to power an entire media empire based on one person with vain hair, a magnifying glass, and a kindergartener’s understanding of chemistry.

Don’t live in fear. If you want to avoid plastics, that’s great—eat fresh things, grow a garden, cook and eat with your family. The cans of beans in your pantry, they’re not going to kill you any time soon.

More about BPA from Science 2.0

Who needs to worry about arsenic in rice?

March 28, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

“Wemberly worried about everything. Big things. Little things. And things in between. “ – Wemberly Worried, Kevin Henkes

The bottom line: you can add arsenic in rice to your long list of health risks you don’t need to worry about. And you can add Consumer Reports to your long list of media outlets that you can’t depend on for reliable health advice. Inaccuracy and breathless scaremongering abound.

The latest Thing That Is Killing Us: Arsenic in rice. The scare started from a Consumer Reports article from November 2012, which they titled “Arsenic in your food”. Following up on their equally-flawed arsenic-in-juice scare article, Consumer Reports has now investigated the arsenic content in rice and other cereals. What they found wasn’t particularly compelling, so, predictably, they gussied it up to exaggerate the impact of their article.

Chemicals are a modern boogeyman. Ew, chemicals. But arsenic is a natural element, and it’s part of the earth’s crust. We cannot ever get 100% of the arsenic out of our food. Our bodies have developed coping mechanisms for arsenic and other toxins. We do need to minimize exposures, and we need to be sensitive to industrial and farming practices that increase the toxin content of food. But it is unreasonable and silly to pretend that any exposure to “chemicals” is bad, or that exposures need to be driven to zero, no matter what the cost.

Arsenic in food sources occurs in two forms, organic and inorganic. Both are toxic, but inorganic arsenic is the far-more-toxic kind, the kind that we really need to think about.  The Consumer Reports article actually makes that point, but then in their text and tables often reports total arsenic in contexts where inorganic (toxic) arsenic is what they ought to be reporting. For instance, they mention that a proposed World Health Organization upper limit for inorganic arsenic in white rice is 200 ppb; then in the table at the end of the article they report out total arsenic in ppb.

There is no set federal standard for the arsenic content of rice (nor many other foods), and Consumer Reports in the line right under their headline points out that these is a need for such a standard to be developed. Fair enough—because of the way it’s farmed in water, rice naturally seems to pick up more arsenic than other crops, and can account for a large portion of the exposure. But to make their point that the numbers come out too high, Consumer Reports comes up with a risk-per-serving limit of 5 mcg/serving, based on the acceptable EPA estimate for water. I’m thinking that most people consume water all day, every day, in large amounts. Rice? Probably not so much.

And even the number they use is kind of weird. They say that the federal limit is 10, but decide to use the state of New Jersey’s limit of 5. Why? If they used 10, the column of inorganic arsenic data in their table would only include measurements less than 10, so none of the numbers could be shown in scary red bold type. Go with the New Jersey number, then at least some of the quantities pop over the limit they extrapolated from water. (By the way, that’s what Consumer Reports did with their juice article, too. The federal or New Jersey limits of arsenic in water can’t just be directly applied to apple juice, rice, or other foods. The consumption patterns and exposures are very different.)

Anyway: I’ve written recently that rice cereal shouldn’t be a baby’s only food—starting at four to six months, babies can start a variety of complementary foods, including some rice, but also including other grains, fruits, veggies, meat, all sorts of things. Variety is better, both to minimize whatever toxins are present in whatever food Consumer Reports decides to test next, but also to decrease the risk of allergies and to get Junior used to the taste of different foods. It’s also more fun to mix it up a bit. So even though I disagree with their methods and the scary tone of their article, I agree with Consumer Report’s conclusion that little babies shouldn’t eat rice cereal exclusively.

Health reporting has turned into “write the scary headline, then write something to back up the headline”. Even when the primary source actually gets it right, or nearly-right, the thousand and one internet sites who amalgamate and reprint stuff turn reasonable articles into breathless screeds of horror.

If even a fraction of internet stories about the stuff that’s killing us were true, we’d all be dead.

Fear not: Health risks you don’t need to worry about

March 12, 2011

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

Melissa sent me a great topic suggestion: “Dr. Roy- would you consider doing a post on worry vs. living your life? What I mean is, we live in a world with SO much information and warnings etc. that it is hard to simply enjoy life. Ever since having my son 5 months ago, I’ve been hyper-aware of all of the ‘warnings’ that exist. Sometimes I become so bogged down in worrying about germs, water quality (the list goes on and on) that I waste time researching when I should really be down on the floor playing with him. Just thought it would be nice to get your perspective in creating a nice balance.”

I love this topic, and I think it would be a great subject for my next book. If I ever get around to writing it, Melissa gets a free copy!

Dispelling health worries has become a favorite topic of The Pediatric Insider blog. Health scares are a rich source of material– there’s always some new firestorm that needs a good bucket of ice water. It seems to me that the main goal of American media is to create and cultivate worry and fear. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the ill-effects of this fear itself—the worry, the heartache, the handwringing paralysis caused by the near-constant deluge of bad news—has been far more harmful than the cumulative effect of all of unsafe exposures.

We are living in the healthiest, safest era of human existence. Never have we had more food, or safer food; never have our lives been longer or healthier. Never have our children been safer or healthier. We have far more free time than ever before. So much free time, it seems, that one of our favorite hobbies has become imagining sources of worry for each other.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I blame our addiction to new anxieties on two fundamental forces. One is our own evolved brain. We developed during a time when fears were real, and anxiety saved lives. Food was always in short supply—for most of human history, people spent most of their time hunting, cultivating, storing, and protecting their food (ref: Little House on the Prairie, L. I. Wilder.) Most children did not live to adulthood. Food and water supplies were a common source of death and disease; ordinary mosquitoes killed millions by spreading malaria and other diseases; illness from malnutrition was normal. Ordinary injuries frequently resulted in death from untreatable infections. Polio paralyzed, pertussis and diphtheria made it impossible to breathe. What’s known as ordinary strep throat nowadays was once deadly scarlet fever. Fearfulness was normal, and useful, and helped keep your family safe. Our brains are wired to rely on distrust and anxiety to protect ourselves—but that wiring, in today’s developed world, is causing far more harm than good.

(Note: I’m talking here about life in The United States and the rest of the developed world. There are plenty of places where food scarcity, disease, and crushing poverty are rampant. Be thankful you don’t live there.)

There’s another odious, seemingly inescapable force that’s turning us into worry-warts. The 24-hours news cycle has to be fed, and demands a constant flow of new, eye-catching stories. Every freakish problem is blared into our ears and eyeballs, and every concern is exaggerated into a killer crisis. The worst of all is the local news, with their ridiculous, out of context teasers—“Death in the school lunchroom, what you need to know now!”, or “The Killer On the Playground!” There’s no time for context, and certainly no time for careful, reasoned journalism or follow-up. The media wants your clicks and your eyeballs and your TIVO. They seem to have no interest in genuine teaching or giving you useful information to stay healthy.

Back to Melissa’s opening question: how to you sift through a relentless barrage of scary health news from the media and internet without driving yourself insane with worry? First, keep in mind that the sky is not falling. It is not all bad news; in fact, our children are genuinely healthy and thriving in today’s world. Recognize that the most attention goes to the loudmouths, troublemakers, and malcontents rather than those of us who are calmly trying to raise our families and live our lives. Don’t put too much stock on any “new” science information until it’s been verified independently, by genuine scientists and doctors in the field rather than fly-by-night websites that are selling things and pushing an agenda. Realize that fearfulness itself carries a price, and that you and your child will be healthier (and happier) playing together instead of worrying together.

I’ll be revisiting this topic with more examples in the months to come. For now, relax and enjoy a list of topics I’ve already covered. Call it “The Pediatric Insider’s list of stuff not to worry about”:

Imaginary fears about vaccines

Cell phones


Caramel Coloring

Soy protein

Recalled fever medicines

Non Organic food


Early puberty in girls

Minor bonks on the head

Got (raw) milk, again?

April 9, 2010

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

I wrote about this once before, and in retrospect I wimped out. Let me be more clear this time: drinking raw milk is a bad idea.

The Consumer Health Digest is a weekly email newsletter I highly recommend as an excellent source of news about important health topics, health quackery, and consumer health issues. From this week’s update:

Another raw milk warning issued.

The FDA and several state agencies are alerting consumers to an outbreak of campylobacteriosis associated with drinking raw milk that originated from the Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury, Indiana.

At least 12 confirmed cases were reported in Michigan. Raw milk is unpasteurized milk from hoofed mammals, such as cows, sheep, or goats. Since 1987, the FDA has required all milk  packaged for human consumption to be pasteurized before being delivered for introduction into interstate commerce. Pasteurization heats milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time and kills harmful bacteria, such as listeriosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis. FDA’s pasteurization requirement also applies to other milk products, with the exception of a few aged cheeses. From 1998 to 2008, 85 outbreaks of human infections resulting from raw milk consumption were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These outbreaks included a total of 1,614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Proponents often claim that raw milk is more nutritious than pasteurized milk and is inherently antimicrobial, thus making pasteurization unnecessary. These claims, however, are false.

[Barrett S. Why raw milk should be avoided. Quackwatch, Dec 22, 2003]

There are no health benefits to consuming raw milk, and clearly there can be dire consequences. Just say “no” to raw, unpasteurized milk.