How to minimize exposure to hidden environmental toxins in foods?

We have all heard about herbicides, pesticides and many other toxins in our produce and how organic produce can reduce the exposure to these toxins. If this is something that you’re concerned about then add dairy and meat to your list of worries. Maybe add dairy and meat to the top of that list. These toxins are present in meat and dairy in addition to the by-products of large scale animal agriculture such as hormones, antibiotics and additives.

There are innumerable pollutants and toxins in our air, water, land and food. We are constantly breathing toxins in the air and eating & drinking the toxins on land via water, plant and animal foods. But for the purpose of this post I will only discuss the health impacts of environmental toxins in foods.

My commonsense tells me that the environmental toxins will have the biggest impact on human DNA and gene mutation which is why almost all of them are classified as carcinogens. So if I had to pick a human disease that these toxins would contribute to, I think I wouldn’t be very far off if I picked Cancer. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States with Heart Disease claiming first place [1]. I also decided to randomly pick an environmental pollutant, Dioxin.

The 2014 World Cancer report on page 189 has classified 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD) as a human carcinogen with a sufficient degree of evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and animals[2]. The World Health Organization released a factsheet named ‘Dioxins and their effects on human health’ in June 2014[3].  The WHO lists some key facts about dioxins;

1) Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals.

2) More than 90% of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish. Many national authorities have programmes in place to monitor the food supply.

3) Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

4) Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years

Dioxins are mainly by-products of industrial processes but can also result from natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires. So unfortunately we can’t avoid dioxin exposure. We are all exposed to it. But we can minimize our exposure to dioxins in foods. The WHO factsheet further states that ‘The highest levels of these compounds are found in some soils, sediments and food, especially dairy products, meat, fish and shellfish. Very low levels are found in plants, water and air.’

I have just used dioxins as one example above but the principle to minimize exposure to toxins in foods stays the same i.e. the higher you eat on the food chain the higher your exposure to environmental toxins. This is why bigger fish have higher mercury levels. So our best chance at minimizing exposure to dioxins or any other environmental toxin in foods is to eat low on the food chain. What does eating low on the food chain mean? It means stick to plant based foods and minimize consumption of animal based foods.

One might argue that plants have pesticides. Yes they do but animals like cows eat the same plants with the same pesticides. Actually compared to a human, a cow will eat a lot more plants and has higher levels of accumulation of pesticides in the body. So even though plants have toxins, the quantity is less than animal and dairy products.

So moral of the story is ‘Eat as low as possible on the food chain to avoid exposure to environmental toxins in foods.’

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