Recently, a popular article (The 10 Most Dangerous Foods) has gotten a lot of attention and is surrounded in controversy. As a health professional, most of it I was already familiar with, and some of it I had never heard of. Looking through the comments on the article, I found that a large number of people disagreed with the conclusions of this article for reasons that were not always articulately explained nor sourced with specific data showing how this is wrong.. Comment after comment mentioned how it’s stupid hippie lies and only stupid hippies think that GMO is bad (likewise, apparently anyone opposing GMO is a science-phobe (GMO = Genetically Modified Organism)) and there is absolutely no difference between organic and conventional foods except for the cost.
I must say that I was rather surprised and confused since in all the years I’ve spent studying health and nutrition, most all of these issues I’ve read about and understood as a basic (albeit inconvenient) truth. Well, I for one am never afraid of being proven wrong; I think that it’s paramount for everyone to be able to prove without a doubt that what they believe to be true isn’t an opinion but is indeed a verifiable fact. So, I decided to do some heavy fact checking.. After about 5 days of research, here’s all the evidence that this “lieing” “hippie crap” “science-phobia”-ridden article supposedly doesn’t have..
1. Farmed Salmon
The claim: Farmed Salmon contains high levels of mercury and PCB’s
The facts: The article in question links to this article from MSNBC: More pollutants in farmed salmon than wild; I am going to assume that there is no serious criticism of this claim… The solution? The Environmental Working Group suggests eating Wild Alaskan Salmon instead.
2. Conventionally Grown Bell Peppers
The claim: Conventional Bell Peppers contain a high amount of pesticides and should be avoided
The facts: Again, the article links to a report from the Environmental Working Group that discusses The Dirty Dozen. But one thing that the author is missing is a source for why organic sweet bell peppers are better. Let’s start with the fact that a 4-year study concluded that organic crops have more antioxidants and vitamin content. But it doesn’t stop there; the pesticides used on sweet bell peppers are indeed harmful. How do I come to this “hippie”, “anti-science”, “BS” conclusion? If you read the previous link, you will notice it mentions that:
“The most dangerous chemicals used in farming such as organophosphates [pesticides] have been linked with a range of conditions such as cancer, decreasing male fertility, foetal abnormalities, chronic fatigue syndrome in children and Parkinson’s disease“.
3. Non-Organic Strawberries
The claim: Conventional Strawberries are irrigated with nutra-sweet water for an extra sweet taste and captan (a pesticide) gives them an extra red glow
The facts: This one is somewhat fuzzy; if the author knows something I do not, then I really do think they should have provided extra sources. Using a quick search, I couldn’t find any concrete information on the NutraSweet claim. The link provided on the article claims that the source is from a 1999 report from the Consumers Union (the people behind Consumer Reports). I couldn’t find any information concerning “strawberries” or “nutrasweet” dating before 2000, so I have contacted the Consumers Union for the official word (and I am now waiting for a reply).
Now what about the second claim concerning captan? If you really think it’s absurd that a chemical would be used to improve the look of the strawberries, then clearly you know very little about the food industry. When I looked up captan, sure enough it was there: it improves fruit finish by giving it a healthy, bright-colored appearance. Captan was supposed to have been phased out of general use as a pesticide in the US in 1989, but I have not found any information regarding its use and regulation in other countries. This is important to note since a great deal of produce comes from other countries since it’s simply cheaper that way.
4. Chilean Sea Bass
The claim: Chilean Sea Bass (aka Toothfish) contains excessively high levels of mercury
The facts: Really now, this is a surprise to some people? Seriously? Well, for the surprised, you can see that the Oceans Program of the Environmental Defense Fund has mentioned that this fish shouldn’t be consumed by adults no more than twice per month, and only once per month for children due to its high mercury content. So does that mean that mercury isn’t full of vitamin C after all? Yep, guess so according to the US Geological Survey.)
5. Non-Organic Peaches
The claim: Conventionally grown Peaches are sprayed heavily with pesticides; avoid them
The facts: The article links to the Organic Center, but I know that’s just not good enough for some folks. After all, they’re probably stupid hippies with an agenda……. maybe they even work for Al Qaeda! We don’t know, sadly. Thankfully though, there is the Environmental Working Group who can clearly tell you that peaches top the “dirty dozen”. What’s a little pesticides with your cereal? You’re welcome to sprinkle some of those delicious chemicals on your corn flakes, but the rest of us would much rather follow the information from the studies I posted in #2.
6. Genetically Modified Corn
The claim: Genetically Modified Corn is bad and so is GMO
The facts: Oh boy, here we go with the knee-jerk response of “It’s science phobia!!” and “GMO is natural!“. Sadly, some people don’t understand the difference between GMO and cross breeding. The article in question links to SeedsOfDeception.com which is a site that’s very critical of GMO. The area of the website in specific that is linked to offers a summary of a number of studies done on GMO foods published in the book Genetic Roulette.
Unfortunately, the studies given were not definitive enough for my liking (namely, not enough information for me to easily look up the original study so that way there is no question about the authenticity of these specific studies. My rule of thumb through all of this has been “if it can’t be found in a quick google search, then don’t bother“) . Here is an article written by the author of the books Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette; it is sourced with many studies and explains a lot of the problems with GMO foods as a whole. But I know that’s not objective enough for some skeptics. So considering that, here are some studies that deal with corn that I found myself:
- No need for condoms – GE corn can do the job
- Bt Toxins in Genetically Modified Crops: Regulation by Deceit
- Study Finds GM Corn Disturbs Immune System of Mice
- Monsanto’s GM Corn MON863 Showed Kidney, Liver Toxicity in Animal Feeding Study
The truth is that the issue of GMO is very huge and covers a range of issues. An entire book could be written on the known dangers that have been documented and the potential dangers that have not yet been fully studied.
I am only going to provide a few informative links that cover various issues. This is not meant to be definitive since the interest of this article is solely for determining factual accuracy of the current article in question. So the only thing I am trying to establish here is that “more research needs to be done concerning human consumption of genetically modified foods and there is valid criticism of them“:
- Report Reveals Bt risks to Insects and Soils
- Exposed: the great GM crops myth
- Overview: Genetically Engineered Crops Will Not Solve the Global Food Crisis
- Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger
7. Bluefin Tuna
The claim: Bluefin Tuna has high mercury content, so avoid eating it
The facts: Here we go again with mercury (which remember, doesn’t contain vitamin C and stuff)! Well, let’s go and check the scale I used previously. Survey says…. wow! Bluefin tuna has excessively high levels of mercury and PCB’s (more than Chilean sea bass) and it is suggested that only men eat ½ a serving of Bluefin Tuna a month at most. I know some people are already rolling their eyes at the suggestion to not eat some kinds of fish.. the bottom line is this: if you want to risk your good health with neurotoxins and industrial compounds, then go right ahead.. But it’s ideal to at least be informed of what you’re eating.
8. Industrially Farmed Chicken
The claim: Industrially Farmed Chicken contains controversial growth hormones and other problems
The facts: This is an issue that is usually controversial because of the argument of Free Range/Organic versus Conventional. Instead of arguing ethics here, the author speaks on the usage of growth hormones and antibiotics. The first thing mentioned is the debate over the instances of early puberty in schoolchildren and the notion that growth hormones from chickens are contributing to this. Stated very clearly is that there’s not enough evidence to determine this conclusively, and a link to a fact sheet from Cornell University is given. Seems clear enough to me..
The next part is just as straight forward: conventional chicken meat is dangerous. Studies from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as well as the Sierra Club have shown that conventional meat from chickens is contaminated with arsenic and the over-usage of antibiotics has bred antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Houston, we have a problem!
9. Non-Organic Apples
The claim: Conventional apples have a heavy load of pesticides; avoid them
The facts: Unfortunately, the original article cited names, but no links or anything. Really, this is very easy to figure out. In the EWG’s list of the top 12 produce items to avoid due to heavy usage of pesticides, apples show up right between Peaches (#1) and Sweet Bell Peppers (#3). On their website, the EWG had this to say:
Conventional apples are sprayed with 36 types of pesticides, and the EWG found that 91% of tested apples were contaminated. Even peeling a conventional apple won’t completely eliminate chemical residue, so it’s best to buy organic. The two types of fiber in apples–soluble and insoluble–can reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of hardening of the arteries, heart attack, and stroke. Apples also keep blood sugar levels stable, and can help prevent kidney stones. Bonus: You’ll find that organic apples taste sweeter than conventionally grown.
Now personally, I’m curious as to what kind of (if any) organophospahtes are used when spraying conventional apples since we’ve already established that the British Medical Association cautions that they are linked to a whole slew of problems (cancer, decreasing male fertility, foetal abnormalities, chronic fatigue syndrome in children and Parkinson’s disease). Checking a some-what official source, we can see that Phosmet, Azinphos-methyl, Chlorpyrifos, Diazinon, and Methidathion are all sprayed on apples.
10. Cattle Treated With rBGH
The claim: Cow’s milk containing rBGH does not break down and can lead to cancer
The facts: This one caught some heavy criticism; considering that, I figured that perhaps the claims for this were not sourced. In actuality, most of it was sourced just fine so I must ponder as to what the controversy was over.. If you know anything about health, then you should know that here in the US, conventional milk contains rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone; which was actually renamed to recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST) because the public has responded negatively to the idea of hormones. It is marketed to farmers as Posilac) since it is used on many cows so they’ll produce more milk, faster.
It is true that the usage of rBGH is banned in the European Union, though the prime reason for this (as stated in the official document) is to prevent cows from getting mastitis (a condition where the cows’ udders become enflamed and puss-filled (an infection, basically)). Next, comes the question of what proof is there that rBGH boosts IGF-1 in the body as the author claims? The source I found that proves this is from a May 2006 study in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine by Dr. Gary Steinman that was featured in the New York Times later that month. An FDA study that was published in the journal Science in 1990 claimed that IGF-1 was broken down by the body’s stomach acids, however, that turns out not to be true as a 1995 study published in the Journal of Endocrinology found that:
“casein (a non-specific dietary protein) and to a lesser extent, BSA and lactoferrin, were effective in preserving IGF-I structural integrity and receptor binding activity in both stomach and duodenum fluids“.
What does that mean in plain English? Just like the article in question said: this hormone does not break down when humans consume milk from those cows. Now for the final question: what does that mean? It’s pretty straight forward, since a link is given to the Cancer Prevention Coalition which states that increased levels of IGF-1 will increase the risk of cancer.
What’s the solution then? Buy milk that’s labeled as “all natural”, “organic”, or “rBGH-free”. Currently, the FDA is resistant with the labeling of milk as rBGH and rBGH-free, so unless you buy from a local farm (which I personally suggest since you’re supporting the local community, getting a product that’s fresher, and often times cheaper) which labels their own milk as rBGH-free, it may be difficult to find an “rBGH-free” label on your regular store-bought milk.
A caution on all-natural and organic labels: the term “all natural” is not regulated and if a food company wishes, they can include all sorts of crap in their product and claim it’s “all natural”. Generally this can be combated by looking at the food label of the product you buy, but that’s not possible with milk. Organic, however, is a certified USDA standard that must be tested in order to be certified organic. The only exception to this rule, is the brand Horizon (and likewise, and brands by their sister company Aurora). Horizon uses legal loopholes to produce non-organic milk.
In my research, it really wasn’t that hard to find the data that supported the claims of the article in question. Honestly, most of the data was already presented in the article itself and all I did was expand on it in showing other studies and squashing long-held beliefs based mostly on ignorance. The only error I was able to find (if you can call it that) is verifiable proof that the Consumer’s Union stated in 1999 that conventional strawberries were sometimes irrigated with NutraSweet-laced water to make them sweeter. For anyone who is remotely familiar with typical food industry practices, this should be of little surprise. However, just because it’s highly plausible, does not mean it’s true and therefore, I can only wait for the Consumer’s Union to get back to me about this report.
Some have cited issues of affordability and even starvation as reasons why you shouldn’t be “picky” about food. This is a really poor straw-man argument. If someone can’t afford to buy organic for these 10 foods, then don’t. The article is not selling fear and paranoia as some so ignorantly charge; it’s all scientifically backed. The problem, is that most people have such a poor idea of what’s actually healthy and what isn’t, that they flock to whatever is labeled as sugar free, cholesterol free, fat free, low calorie, low carb assuming that that is the healthy option (when usually, it’s worse).
Probably the best book I have ever read on understanding nutrition is Joshua Rosenthal’s Integrative Nutrition since it’s a book that everyone can understand and doesn’t try to sell the reader any diet fad or specific dietary theory. Likewise, I suggest watching BBC 4′s 2-part TV documentary Supermarket Secrets (1, 2). I know some will have a knee-jerk reaction to this and bemoan “fear! paranoia!“; this isn’t about fear or paranoia, it’s actually about understanding that our food today is much different from how we often perceive it. If someone doesn’t want to eat healthy, that’s their decision and I’m not going to try to force them into anything different. I just want to make sure that people know what it is they’re eating. If we can’t have healthy food, then let’s at least have honest food.
UPDATE: I am forced to close comments, unfortunately, since this article is being attacked by SPAM bots on a daily basis.