Is Your Food Killing You?
By Shelly Xu
Every day your body absorbs thousands of toxins from consumed meals. These can be added chemicals, natural toxins, or toxins that have been modified in some way. You may have heard claims that some common foods or ingredients might be toxic, too. And particularly when consumed frequently, the excess of these substances in your body can lead to countless health problems from constipation and digestive problems, to alteration of the intestinal flora, lack of control in the immune system, or even poor absorption of nutrients.
You might already know that you need to avoid products that have easily upset your stomach before, or even caused symptoms such as abdominal pain, dizziness, fever, lightheadedness, sweating, diarrhea, indigestion or vomiting. These symptoms, in addition to impacting your body, can also affect your mind/thought processes.
But did you know that there are foods that are a bomb of harmful substances not easily seen on your plate? Here is a list of the foods that add the most toxins to your body, and that you can’t see with the naked eye. Let me know which products will say goodbye to your pantry, after this quick read!
1. Refined Vegetable and Seed Oils
Refined vegetable and seed oils include corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils. While years ago people were urged to replace saturated fats with vegetable oils to reduce their cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease, more recent evidence suggests that these oils actually cause harm when consumed in excess.
Vegetable oils are highly refined products with no essential nutrients, so they become “empty” calories. They’re high in omega-6 linoleic acid, and polyunsaturated omega-6 fats, which contain multiple double bonds that are prone to damage and rancidity when exposed to light or air. And while you need some linoleic acid, the overconsumption of it has become a health problem for most people in today’s society.
On the other hand, most people don’t consume enough omega-3 fatty acids to maintain a proper balance between these fats. In fact, it’s estimated that the average person eats up to 16 times as many omega-6 fats as omega-3 fats. The healthy ratio, however, is between 1:1 and 3:1 as high intakes of linoleic acid may increase inflammation, which can damage the endothelial cells lining your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.
Among the most damaging observations, scientific studies have found that women with the highest intakes of omega-6 fats and lowest intakes of omega-3 fats had an 87–92% greater risk of breast cancer than those with more balanced intakes. To keep yourself away from these, remember that cooking with vegetable oils is even worse than using them at room temperature, because when they’re heated, they release harmful compounds that may further increase the risk of heart disease, types of cancer, and inflammatory diseases.
2. Bisphenol-A in Food Packaging
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical found in the plastic containers of many common foods and beverages. The main food sources are bottled water, packaged foods and canned items, such as fish, chicken, beans and vegetables. Regarding BPA’s negative effects, studies have shown that BPA can dissolve out of these containers and into the food or beverage, making these foods the biggest contributor to high BPA levels in the body.
While a 2010 study found BPA in 63 of 105 samples of food, studies on pregnant animals have also shown that BPA exposure could result in reproductive problems, increased risk of breast and prostate cancer in developing fetuses, infertility, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity among others.
Results from one study, for example, suggest a connection between high BPA levels and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a disorder of insulin resistance characterized by elevated levels of androgens, which are hormones crucial for reproductive function such as testosterone. Furthermore, research has also linked high BPA levels to altered thyroid hormone production and function. This is attributed to the chemical binding to thyroid hormone receptors, which is similar to its interaction with estrogen receptors.
While 40 independent studies have reported that negative effects have occurred at levels below the recommended limit in animals, you can reduce your BPA exposure within the recommended daily limit (23 mcg/lb of body weight) and avoid future health risks by looking for BPA-free bottles and containers, as well as by eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
3. Trans Fats in Junk Food
Trans fats are the unhealthiest fats you can eat. They’re created by pumping hydrogen into unsaturated oils in order to turn them into solid fats. Because your body doesn’t recognize or process trans fats in the same way as naturally occurring fats, it is not surprising that eating them can lead to a number of serious health problems.
Animal and observational studies have repeatedly shown that trans fats consumption causes inflammation and negative effects on heart health. Researchers who looked at data from 730 women, for example, found that inflammatory markers were highest in those who ate the most trans fats, adding a strong risk factor for heart disease. Oher controlled studies in humans, too, have confirmed that trans fats lead to inflammation, adding to negative effects such as the impaired ability of arteries to properly dilate and keep blood circulating, and even more severe damage to the cells lining your blood vessels.
That said, remember that chronic inflammation is at the root of many other serious conditions, such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity and more. And the available evidence continues to support the avoidance of trans fats as much as possible and using healthier fats instead.
4. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Red Meat
Red meat is a great source of protein, iron and several other important nutrients. But it can release toxic byproducts called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) during certain cooking methods. When beef is grilled or smoked at high temperatures, for example, fat drips onto hot cooking surfaces, which produces volatile PAHs that can seep into the meat you eat, and even the incomplete burning of charcoal can also cause PAHs to form.
Among the most damaging effects in the body, researchers have found that PAHs are toxic and capable of causing different types of cancers. While genes play a role, too, high PAH levels have been linked to increased risks of breast and prostate cancer in many observational studies. The strongest association, however, appears to be between grilled meats and cancers of the digestive tract, especially colon cancer.
Having said that, it’s important to note that this connection with colon cancer has only been seen in red meats, such as beef, pork, lamb and veal. Poultry, such as chicken, appears to have either a neutral or protective effect on colon cancer risk. Thus, although other cooking methods are healthier, you can still reduce PAHs when grilling — as much as 41–89% — by minimizing smoke and quickly removing drippings.
5. Mercury in Fish
Most types of fish are extremely healthy. But certain species contain high levels of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages the brain and nerves, and which pregnant women are at particularly high risk, since mercury can affect the fetus’s developing brain and nervous system.
A 2014 analysis found that in several countries, mercury levels in the hair and blood of women and children were significantly higher than the World Health Organization recommends, particularly in coastal communities and near mines. While another study found that the amount of mercury varied widely among different brands and types of canned tuna, it found that 55% of the samples were in excess of the EPA’s 0.5 ppm (parts per million) safety limit.
Analyzing that data, it’s not difficult to see how seafood consumption is the largest contributor to mercury accumulation in humans, which comes as a result of this chemical working its way up the food chain in the sea, where plants that grow in mercury-contaminated waters are consumed by small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish. Over time, mercury accumulates in their bodies, which are eventually eaten by humans.
While eating other types of fish is still advised because of their nutritional benefits, you should limit your mercury exposure by avoiding fish with extremely high mercury content such as king mackerel and swordfish. Instead, choose seafood from the “lowest mercury” category on this list and take advantage of the fact that it includes most of the healthy fish, highest in omega-3 fats, too.
6. Red 40 in Artificially Colored Foods
Red Dye 40 is a synthetic food dye made from petroleum, one of the most widely used components of food dyes, as well as one of the most controversial ones. Although the dye is thought to be linked to allergies, migraine, and mental disorders in children, manufacturers still use this and other synthetic color additives in foods and beverages to enhance naturally occurring colors, add color for visual appeal, and offset color loss that may occur due to storage conditions.
With an acceptable daily intake of 3.2 mg per pound of body weight, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has placed Red Dye 40 under a low-concern category. The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization agree, too, that the estimated dietary exposure to Red Dye 40 for people of all ages does not present a health concern.
But while studies on Red Dye 40’s consumption demographics have concluded that children’s consumption, which generally is in larger quantities than adults, still is within safe levels, both synthetic and natural food colors have been reported to cause physical problems, such as mild allergic skin reactions like hives in other studies.
Furthermore, Red Dye 40 has been linked to aggression and conditions like attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in children. While most children don’t experience adverse behavioral effects when consuming foods that contain Red Dye 40, for example, some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to the toxin. This does not come as a surprise, as synthetic food colors are thought to cause behavioral symptoms in children because they may cause chemical changes in the brain, inflammation from an allergic response, and the depletion of minerals, such as zinc, that are involved in growth and development.
While the restriction of synthetic food dyes — including Red Dye 40 — may be an effective treatment option for reducing behavioral symptoms in children with ADHD, more research is necessary to confirm this. One of the things that can be done, however, is to prevent rather than to risk your good health and learn to identify these toxins in food products. Specially if purchasing packaged foods, you can identify Red Dye 40 in the food label’s list of ingredients. It may also be called:
- Red 40
- Red 40 Lake
- FD&C Red №40
- FD&C Red №40 Aluminum Lake
- Allura Red AC
- CI Food Red 17
- INS №129
Note that choosing to exclude or limit your or your child’s consumption of foods or beverages with Red Dye 40 will pose no harm, as it’s non-essential to a diet. In fact, doing so may benefit physical and behavioral health in other ways, considering the foods and beverages that contain the dye are often also rich in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
7. Glyphosates in Farm Products
In March 2019, agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto lost a lawsuit to Edwin Hardeman, who claimed Monsanto’s herbicide product Roundup — the main chemical where glyphosate is found — caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto was ordered by the court to pay more than $80 million in damages to Hardeman. Ever since, glyphosate has become a known chemical, but not a popular one.
In agrochemical terms, glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide that can control the growth of broadleaf weeds and grasses. First registered in 1974, glyphosate has been used in agriculture for decades and is the main ingredient in the once-popular weed killer Roundup, owned by Monsanto and then acquired by Bayer in 2018. The effectiveness of glyphosate in agriculture comes as it inhibits certain enzymes in plants, which allows farmers to eliminate weeds that compete against crops.
While the EPA maintains that glyphosate is not officially a threat to public health, many are concerned that glyphosate is a harmful ingredient to both humans and pets. Despite the EPA’s stance, studies have found glyphosate exposure to be linked to anywhere from a 41 percent to 70 percent increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and an increased risk in bladder cancer. In pets, glyphosate exposure has been found as cause of vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, excess drool, fatigue, even cancers.
That said, while many countries have started to ban, and educate the public on the dangers of glyphosate, the herbicide continues to find its way into our foods. The Environmental Working Group, for example, reported that in 2019, a widespread glyphosate contamination affected breakfast cereals, oat products, pasta, crackers, chickpea flour, pizza, and lentils.
From a “better safe than sorry” perspective, there are ways to avoid consumption of this chemical and others. When you go shopping, bring a list of the foods that have the lowest amount of pesticide exposure. Also, become familiar with the nutritional content in your food by reading the Nutrition Facts label.
As a final note, remember that I’ve mentioned only a few of the toxins found in your daily food products, and it does not mean that you will have to stop eating these completely. In the case of fish, which provides great sources of nutrition, you could improve your selection and eat in moderation, for example. It is also important to know that if you have a diet high in toxins, you can find balance with exercise, healthy fruits and vegetables, which will detoxify your body and maintain a nutritional balance.
Did you know sugar can be a toxic substance, too? Subscribe to my nutritional newsletter, Eat Well Be Well here, where I dive deeper in food science to help you understand how sugar is a toxin. And don’t forget to visit poppylifecare.org/nutrition or schedule a private consultation with me to learn how to improve your own nutritional habits.
Do you want to learn more? Read: Keep Your “Gut Feeling”: Tips to Preserve Your Gut Microbes