Can Food Really Be Our Medicine?

How Toxins Are Pervading our Food Supply and Harming Our Health

          Brilliant Blue. Allura Red. Sunset Yellow. The colors sound so delicious — surely they describe some dazzling new interior design, an innovative line of eyeshadows or next season’s shinysports cars? Or perhaps they are new brilliant hues to fill the artist’s pallet, or trending interior accent colors?

            None of the above. In fact, they are the names of FDA-approved artificial food colorings and dyes, and they can be hidden in everything from your heart-healthy salsa to your whole grain breakfast cereal and blueberry yogurt.[1] Food dye consumption per person has increased fivefold in the United States since 1955, with three dyes—Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6—accounting for 90% of the dyes used in foods. Artificial dyes, some derived from petroleum, are found in thousands of foods,and may be carcinogenic, as well as cause hypersensitivity reactions.[2] They present what the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, DC, literally calls a “rainbow of risk.” In 2016, when Prevention Magazine took a close look at surprising foods with dyes, they found that 90% of foods marketed to children contain dyes, and that everything from flavored applesauce to smoked salmon, hot sauce, and salad dressing contain dyes.[3]

            Many foods, unfortunately, harbor more than potentially toxic dyes—they also contain additives and preservatives that may be carcinogenic. Take, for example, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), two preservatives that prevent oils in foods from oxidizing and becoming rancid. According to the Berkeley Wellness Letter, “The National Toxicology Program has concluded that BHA ‘is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,’ while BHT has been linked to an increased—or sometimes decreased—risk of cancer in animals. The consumer group the Center for Science in the Public Interest thus cites BHA as an additive to “avoid” and puts BHT in its “caution” column.”[4]

            Next up: processed meats—such as hot dogs, salami, ham, bologna, bacon, sausages and more. They contain a chemical called sodium nitrite, which during cooking can form carcinogenic compounds.[5] A study by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and the University of Southern California found a correlation between eating processed meats and cancer risk. The study followed 190,000 people, ages 45-75, for seven years. Those who ate the most processed meats had a 67% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least amount.[6]

            Then there are the toxins that migrate into food from the wrappings and containers they are packaged in—everything from films to pouches, bottles, trays,and lids.[7] For instance, many fast-food wrappers and boxes contain chemicals that can leach into food, and one out of five paperboard food boxes in a 2017 study contained detectable levels of fluorine. [8] Fluorinated chemicals, suspected carcinogens[9], also are allowed in compostable food packaging. Plasticizers have a low molecular weight and can migrate from packaging materials into the food wrapped within, thus becoming indirect food additives.[10] And migration of plasticizers from PVC gaskets in the closures of glass jars has been reported for contact with oily foods.[11]

            Along with additives, preservatives and migrating molecules, heavy metals can be present in many foods. The presence of mercury in large fish is well known. When the Environmental Working Group looked at pregnant women who eat fish, they found that about 30% had mercury levels over the safe limit set by the EPA and 60% had excessive mercury levels in their hair. Frequent fish eaters had 11 times more mercury than a group who rarely ate fish.[12] And bone broth—in many ways a very healthy, nutritious food—can have excess lead levels. A 2013 study measured the levels of lead in broth made from the bones of organic chickens. The broth was found to have “markedly high lead concentrations” compared to water cooked in the same cookware.[13] Similarly, rice is well known to sequester arsenic, absorbing it from irrigation water, soil, and even cooking water. Arsenic exposure is linked to heart disease, kidney disease, brain disease, and diabetes.[14]

            Pesticide residues present another threat to our health from the food supply.[15],[16],[17] Pesticide exposure is linked to cancer risk, birth defects, obesity, and other maladies.[18] More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually nationwide, according to the Pesticide Action Network North America, an environmental group in Oakland.[19],[20]

           Given all the potential toxins in foods, one might wonder how to eat a truly healthy diet. One option is to source organic and fresh produce whenever possible, to avoid packaged and prepared foods and large fish that often contain high amounts of mercury. In addition, varying your diet rather than focusing on a few foods, spreads the risk of accumulation of a particular toxin that food might carry. Many people who eat excess of one food such as tuna or brown rice, thinking it to be healthy, are actually at risk of accumulating high levels of mercury or arsenic in the blood because intake exceeds the body’s ability to eliminate it.  

Because of our inherent exposure to these toxic substances and many others, it is important to support the body in elimination. By utilizing specific combinations of nutraceutical supplements, the body’s natural detoxification abilities can be upregulated. This helps the body to process and eliminate these potentially damaging substances which often are stored in the tissues of the body. Because many of these substances are stored in the body, even if you make a dramatic change to your diet today in attempts to avoid exposure, the things you were exposed to weeks and months ago remain stuck in the body, and may be causing damage. Toxic substances not only damage our cells and at larger levels impact organ function, but also can have an epigenetic impact which may affect you and your offspring generations to come.[21]



[1] Potera, C. Diet and Nutrition The artificial food dye blues. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Oct; 118(10): A428. View Full Paper

[2] CSPI. Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2010. [accessed 15 Sep 2010]. Available at http://tinyurl.com/2dsxlvd

[3] Parderio, C. 7 Surprising foods that contain artificial dyes. April 2016. [Accessed August 24, 2017]. Available at: https://www.prevention.com/food/surprising-foods-with-food-dyes

[4] Berkeley Wellness. Two Preservatives to Avoid? February 2011. [Accessed August 24, 2017]. Available at: http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food-safety/article/two-preservatives-avoid

[6] Nöthlings U, Wilkens LR, Murphy SP, et al. Meat and fat intake as risk factors for pancreatic cancer: the multiethnic cohort study.

J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Oct 5;97(19):1458-65. View Full Paper

[7] Bhunia K, Sablani S, Tang J, et al. Migration of Chemical Compounds from Packaging Polymers during Microwave, Conventional Heat Treatment, and Storage. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 2013. 12: 523–545. (12) 5. View Full Paper

[8]Schaider, LA, Balan SA, Blum A. Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett., 2017, 4 (3), pp 105–111. View Full Paper

[9] Zhang XJ, Lai TB, Kong RY. Biology of fluoro-organic compounds. Top Curr Chem. 2012;308:365-404. doi: 10.1007/128_2011_270. Review. View Abstract

[10] Goulas AE, Riganakos KA, Ehlermann DAE, et al. Effect of high dose electron beam irradiation on the migration of DOA and ATBC plasticizers from food-grade PVC and PVDC/PVC films, respectively, into olive oil. J Food Prot 1998. 61:720-4.

[11] Fankhauser-Noti A, Grob K. Migration of plasticizers from PVC gaskets of lids for glass jars into oily foods: amount of gasket material in food contact, proportion of plasticizer migratin into food and compliance testing by simulation. Trends Food Sci Tehcnol.. 2006; 17: 105-12

[12] EWG, Mercury in seafood: executive summary. March, 2016  [Accessed August 25, 2017]. Available at: http://www.ewg.org/research/us-fish-advice-may-expose-babies-too-much-mercury/executive-summary

[13] Monro JA, Leon R, Puri BK. The risk of lead contamination in bone broth diets. Med Hypotheses. 2013 Apr;80(4):389-90. View Abstract

[14] WHO, Arsenic Fact Sheet, June 2016. [Accessed August 25, 2017] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs372/en/

[15] Thapa K, Pant BR. Pesticides in vegetable and food commodities: environment and public health concern.J Nepal Health Res Counc. 2014 Sep-Oct;12(28):208-10. View Abstract

[16] Verger PJ, Boobis AR. Reevaluate pesticides for food security and safety. Global food supply. Science. 2013 Aug 16;341(6147):717-8

[17] Mol HG, Reynolds SL, Fussell RJ, et al. Guidelines for the validation of qualitative multi-residue methods used to detect pesticides in food.

Drug Test Anal. 2012 Aug;4 Suppl 1:10-6. View Abstract

[18] Parrón T, Requena M, Hernández AF. Environmental exposure to pesticides and cancer risk in multiple human organ systems.Toxicol Lett. 2014 Oct 15;230(2):157-65. View Abstract

[19] PAN, Pesticides: myths and facts. [Accessed August 25, 2017]Available at: http://www.panna.org/pesticides-big-picture/myths-facts

[20] PAN, Protecting farmworkers, protecting crops. [Accessed August 25, 2017] Available at http://www.panna.org/blog/protecting-farmworkers-protecting-crops

[21] Skinner MK, et al. Epigenetic transgenerational actions of environmental factors in disease etiology. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Apr;21(4):214-22. View Full Paper

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