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Should You Worry About Toxins In Your Food?

Learn to tell the difference between real food poisons and fearmongering


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

Whether it’s the “yoga mat chemical” found in your Subway sandwich or the dyes added to your Kraft Mac and Cheese, you’ve likely heard about so-called “toxins” in our food supply. Maybe you’ve even signed a petition calling for the “toxins'” removal, or stopped buying certain products entirely. Undoubtedly, that caution and eye toward nutrition are good things. To stay healthy, we have to know what’s in our food.

There’s just one problem: Lately, the term “toxins” has been thrown around rather lightly by bloggers and activists, incriminating everything from mercury (legitimately harmful) to sugar (fattening, but toxic?) to non-organic blueberries (pretty much fine). Add genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the debate, and it seems like our entire refrigerator could be poisonous. Who knew breakfast could be so confusing?

So, what are toxins, really? Which should we look out for, and which “toxic” ingredients are actually fine? How do we know whom to trust? And ultimately, what should we eat to stay healthy?

What Are Toxins, Really?

Clinically speaking, “to most scientists, a ‘toxin’ is a poison created by an organism and does not include chemicals like synthetic pesticides or industrial chemicals, or metals like arsenic,” says Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This can include substances like bacteria, fungus and even snake venom. “But in popular usage,” she says, “‘toxins’ has become synonymous with toxic substances.”

The most important thing is to eat a variety of healthful unprocessed foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and whole grains.

— Lisa Lefferts, scientist

To this effect, you’ve probably read about “toxins” in beauty products, household cleaners and especially food. That’s because, over the last few years, popular, controversial health and nutrition websites like Natural News and Food Babe have bent the term to mean “any potentially harmful food chemical,” whether or not its effects have been proven unsafe by legitimate scientists and valid studies. Online, “toxins” is employed to malign a range of edible substances, from confirmed hazards like mercury and arsenic to comparatively innocuous ingredients like:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and azodicarbonamide (ADA), found by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be “generally recognized as safe” and “a safe food additive when used for the purposes and at the levels specified in the FDA regulations,” respectively
  • Sugar and canola oil, which aren’t necessarily healthy, but will not poison you unless consumed in massive doses
  • Water. Yep. One Natural News article called water a toxin.

This tendency to demonize all hypothetically dangerous chemicals or ingredients as poison, often with little or dubious evidence, is alarmist and troubling, scaring people away from food that is, by and large, perfectly fine.

“Americans have the safest food supply in the entire world,” says Joan Salge Blake, associate professor at Boston University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If you have someone who has absolutely no background in science and nutrition saying these things just to scare people out of eating food, that’s a disservice.”

To Tell a Charlatan

“The Internet can be a phenomenal source of information if what you’re reading comes from a credible source, and he or she has expertise in what they’re talking about,” Blake says. Unfortunately, many online experts are misinformed, or worse — out-and-out frauds, looking to sell you something. How to tell the difference, then?

“The No. 1 thing is: What is the source? What are their credentials for reading or talking about this topic?” she asks. “Do not take dietary advice from someone who is not credentialed. You cannot make recommendations for people’s diets that are not science-based.” For real information, consult the Food and Drug Administration, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or any of the numerous, scientifically sound online resources for the legitimately dangerous toxins found in your meals.

Additionally, be on red alert for those hawking “detoxifying” cleanses and flushes, which promise to cleanse your body of harmful poisons. They’re suspicious at best, and straight-up snake oil at worst. “If you hear the word ‘toxins’ being thrown about loosely, and the need to ‘detox,’ then probably it is not very meaningful,” Lefferts says. “Cleanses and flushes may help to cleanse and flush your wallet, but there isn’t much scientific evidence that they make you healthier.”

“Your liver is the detox organ, and your kidneys also help to get rid of toxins. They do a bang-up job,” says Blake, who doesn’t mince words when it comes to cleanses. “What I think is hysterical is when people do these cleanses, they do the lemon-pepper combination or juicing. When you really want to clean out your gastrointestinal system, you want high-fiber food. So why would you take them out? There’s no science, and it makes no sense.”

How to Eat Safely

If you’re still concerned about genetically modified foods or the chemicals found in your lunch — and really, who isn’t? — there are dietary-based steps you can take to guarantee your safety and that of your family. “The single most important thing you can do is to eat a variety of healthful unprocessed foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and also whole grains,” Lefferts says. “Minimize processed foods, which frequently use less expensive additives instead of more expensive nutritious ingredients, and frequently are high in sugar, salt and/or fat.” She also suggests the following:

  • Avoid microwaving fatty foods in plastic. Use glass or ceramic, which reduces plastic-related chemicals such as phthalates.
  • Trim fat off meat, poultry and fish, reducing pesticides and other chemicals that accumulate in fat.
  • When grilling, keep the fat from dripping onto the heat source and producing smoke, for example by using a drip pan, and selecting less fatty cuts. Don’t eat the liquid drippings, cut away charred parts and grill more vegetables.
  • Go organic to reduce pesticides.
  • To reduce BPA, avoid polycarbonate water bottles and food containers and limit your consumption of canned foods, especially for infants and pregnant women.
  • Depending on your locality, if you fish, learn about and heed local fish advisories to avoid contaminants.

Blake also recommends calling your doctor: “Before you make any kind of a dietary chance that is very drastic, check with your health care provider. You may have restrictions or be on medications that could affect your health.”

Ultimately, though it makes sense to be aware of what goes into your meals, you can mostly relax when it comes to the prospect of actually being poisoned. Remember to eat a healthy diet, consume processed foods in moderation and consult reputable scientific sources if a food concerns you and you may never have to worry about “toxins” again.

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