Many people want to clean up their diets by eliminating toxins in their food. But what does that actually mean? The information available is often confusing, with different sources reporting that some foods are to be avoided at all costs, while others say that they are perfectly fine to eat. We’ve assembled a basic guide for navigating information about toxins in food.
What is a food toxin?
In popular culture, people use the term “toxin” to describe chemicals that can harm our bodies when we use them on our skin or eat them in our food. It’s a very loose definition that changes depending on who you’re talking to. Medical science views toxins as a variety of substances that can either be naturally produced in the food itself or added by human activities such as pollution.
Food Toxin Myth: Organic produce doesn’t have toxins
There is a belief that organically produced veggies have fewer toxins than vegetables produced in traditional commercial agriculture. This may be because in order to be considered “organic,” a farmer uses no pesticides. However, the average grocery store shopper will never encounter the quantities of pesticides needed for them to be poisonous to humans. Washing your produce when you bring it home from the store is the best way to avoid exposure.
Many plants can also naturally produce toxins that are harmful to humans in the right circumstances. For example, uncooked red kidney beans can cause vomiting and diarhea, and potatoes can produce a toxin called solanines and chaconine if stored improperly or allowed to go green. Farmers who grow these crops work hard to produce them in ways that reduce these risks, and common cooking methods often break them down. Individuals who are susceptible to these toxins should be wary when they know they are consuming the foods that could contain them. The World Health Organization has a full list of these naturally-occuring food toxins and their symptoms, you can read it here.
Recognized Food Toxins and Their Effects
There are several compounds that do appear in food that are known to have harmful effects on the human body. These are toxins that you should avoid as much as you can.
BPA From Plastic Food Packaging
Have you ever wondered what the label, “BPA Free” means? BPA stands for Bisphenol, a chemical found in plastics. Food and beverages contained in these plastics can often have trace elements of the substance that build up over time. BPA can increase the risk of infertility, insulin resistance, and disease. When you can, opt out of using plastic containers for your food.
Many substances used to preserve food have been discovered to have harmful effects on humans, in particular, the growth and development of children. While they tend to be used in small amounts, making efforts to eat foods with fewer preservatives in them is encouraged by health scientists. Eating fresh ingredients and cooking meals from scratch are a great way to reduce the presence of food preservatives in your family’s diet.
Mercury in Seafood
As pollution has increased globally, fish and other seafood have been found to have alarming levels of mercury, a heavy metal released in large quantities through industrial processes. Fish absorb mercury through water pollution and it builds up in their bodies. Likewise, when we eat these fish, the mercury is stored in our bodies, building into a harmful amount. It’s important to research the type of fish you are eating to know if it is a species that is susceptible to mercury. Pregnant women are urged to avoid raw fish at all times, and there are often advisories released on certain seafood that caution anyone from consuming them. While fish is an incredibly healthy meat, you must be wary of the potential for mercury to be present in a growing number of species.