Posted tagged ‘toxins’

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.

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.

BPA in baby bottles: a genuine worry, or just a media scare?

June 1, 2008

Kristen asked, “Will you please explain the BPA concern in bottles? There is quite a bit of information about it, but I’m having a hard time determining if the bottles I use contain it or not since I don’t see any number on my bottles (Avent). Is a drop in system the best alternative while companies are determining which products are safe? Thanks for any information and help in finding the ‘correct’ bottle.”

As with many issues of toxins and exposures, no one knows with 100% certainty that the amount of BPA that a bottle-fed baby is exposed to will definitely never cause any health problems. I will say based on the available data and the best studies, BPA is almost certainly not something that’s going to harm your child. There are BPA-free alternatives if this is something that you find yourself continuing to worry about.