Toxins are all around us. Whether it's the car fumes you inhale, the frozen dinner you eat, or the negative thoughts you have at work, toxins are everywhere.
Note: to some degree, everything can be toxic in the right amounts, even oxygen and water. The word "toxin" is thrown around a lot and in this article, it refers to the consistent accumulation of mildly harmful substances that can cause more serious health concerns over time.
Our bodies are designed to handle daily toxic exposures through our detoxification and elimination organs, such as the liver, colon and kidneys, which do a pretty good job keeping us healthy.
That being said, the things that we consume on a regular basis often raise the biggest concerns because of toxic accumulation. Anything that enters our bodies through direct contact with our mucosal membranes, inhaled into our lungs or touches our skin for long periods of time has the highest chance of entering our blood stream and influencing our health, for good or bad.
It can feel daunting trying to identify and eliminate the toxins we are exposed to daily. Not only do we need to know what they are, but also what to do about them.
Here are the seven edible toxins to be aware of and what you can do about them to keep you healthy:
1. The dirty dozen
How are they toxic?: The dirty dozen is a list of fruits and vegetables that are the most contaminated by pesticide use. Pesticides are associated with numerous health concerns including breast cancer, hormonal disruption, as well as neurotoxicity.
These "dirty dozen" produce include: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines (imported), cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas (imported), potatoes.
The solution: When considering buying local, organic and seasonal produce, keep this list in mind and check out the EWG listing for the top produce and pesticide residue data.
Alternatively, start incorporating the "Clean 15," which includes the least-contaminated produce, in your favourite recipes: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, sweet potatoes.
2. Processed foods, preservatives and additives
How are they toxic?: When food is processed there has been a deliberate change made to it. These changes can include the addition of preservatives and additives, which are used to improve or preserve the taste and shelf stability.
Many of these additions are unhealthy, such as aspartame, which has been linked to increased irritable mood and depression, as well as high fructose corn syrup, associated with metabolic syndrome and a potential factor in the obesity epidemic.The solution: Give your body a break from these chemicals and irritants by:
- Washing your produce with more than just water (learn an easy DIY produce wash recipe).
- Buying organic, local and seasonal produce (especially the "Dirty Dozen").
- Avoiding detrimental additives such as artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, trans fats, olestra, food dyes, sodium chloride/ sulfite/ nitrate/ nitrite, BHA/ BHT/ propyl gallate, sulfur dioxide, potassium bromate and parabens.
3. Excessive amounts of added sugar
How is it toxic?: When the word "added" appears before sugar this specifies the addition of sugar to processed foods and beverages during their production. These added sugars have no nutritional value and can be toxic because they can contribute to tooth decay as well as obesity.The solution: Avoid candy, concentrated juices and soda pop by replacing them with healthier options, such as:
- Raw fruits and veggies ( apples, avocados, oranges, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, celery).
- High protein snacks to help with satiation and blood sugar regulation (nuts and seeds, protein shakes, beans, lentils, tofu, meat).
- More water and fresh juice.
4. Heavy metals in seafood
How are they toxic?: The unfortunate consequence of poor manufacturing processes include the contamination of our water ecosystems with heavy metal pollution.
While many different seafood options, such as fish, provide beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, they can also be a source of methyl mercury. The exposure to this toxic heavy metal has been associated with a low risk of neurological damage and it has been recommended that pregnant women avoid fish species highest in mercury to prevent fetal developmental risk.The solution: Avoid seafood and fish at the top of the food chain, which contain high levels of mercury, and check out the EPA's safe amounts of mercury in shellfish and fish to evaluate the contamination levels of your favorite seafood.
- Avoid shark, tuna, swordfish, king mackerel which are predator fish with higher amounts of mercury.
- Stick to shrimp, sardines, anchovies, salmon, pollock, catfish and smaller fish (even in your fish oil).
- Eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
5. Packaging coated with PFCs
How are they toxic?: Perfluorinated compounds, aka PFCs, are man-made chemicals that have been used to make products that are resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Research has shown that exposure to these toxic chemicals has been linked to breast cancer, impairments in reproductive health, as well as fetal malformations.The solution: Avoid food wrappers, pizza boxes, microwavable popcorn and other PFC products, especially when re-heating.
- Purchase responsible pre-packaged goods without PFCs.
- Transfer microwavable foods to glass, ceramic or other safe-to-heat containers.
- Re-heat your food on the stove or in the oven when possible.
- Try to cook and eat fresh foods whenever possible.
6. Not cooking or washing foods properly
How is it toxic?: While meat is an excellent source of protein as well as heme iron (the most absorbable form of iron) it can also be a source of infectious bacteria and parasites.The solution: Especially when it comes to pork, chicken, turkey, fish and seafood, make sure they are cooked appropriately. Similarly, little critters can live among leafy greens and produces with a high surface area, such as broccoli.
- Use a meat thermometer to estimate how cooked a thick piece of meat (temperature food guide).
- Always wash your hands after touching raw meat so as to not transfer potential bacteria to other surfaces throughout the home.
- Soak your produce for 10 minutes in a solution of water, salt, vinegar and grapefruit seed extract.
7. Charcoal grilling
How is it toxic?: There's nothing quite like the smell of the BBQ on a warm summer day. However, the burnt crust on your steaks and veggies, the result of firing up the grill, also means volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In large quantities these toxic compounds can be carcinogenic.The solution: While it might be impossible to avoid the BBQ, moderation is the key.
- Limit your consumption of charcoal crispy bits of fatty meats and high oil vegetables from the BBQ but also skillet and oven
- Try eating raw, steamed or poached foods more often
"You are what you eat" -- we've all heard the saying, but if what you're consuming includes a high volume of the above mentioned items, you just might be toxic.
While it is near impossible to avoid ALL the toxins ALL the time, limiting your exposure can reduce the accumulation of these harmful substances in your body, keeping you healthy now and in the future.
Go on and be a conscious consumer, and eat well to be well!
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When a regular fat like corn, soybean, or palm oil is blasted with hydrogen and turned into a solid, it becomes a trans fat. These evil anti-nutrients help packaged foods stay “fresh,” meaning that the food can sit on the supermarket shelf for years without ever getting stale or rotting. Eating junk food with trans fats raises your “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and lowers your “good” HDL. These fats also increase your risk of blood clots and heart attack. Avoid palm oil and other trans fats like the plague, and kiss fried foods goodbye too, since they’re usually fried in one of these freakish trans-fatty oils.
Ditch any food that lists shortening or partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, since these are also evil trans fats. In addition to clogging your arteries and causing obesity, they also increase your risk of metabolic syndrome. Choose healthier monounsaturated fats, such as olive, peanut and canola oils and foods that contain unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids instead.
When a whole grain is refined, most of its nutrients are sucked out in an effort to extend its shelf life. Both the bran and germ are removed, and therefore all the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Because these stripped down, refined grains are devoid of fiber and other nutrients, they’re also easy to digest — TOO EASY. They send your blood sugar and insulin skyrocketing, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Replace processed grains with whole grains, like brown or wild rice, whole-wheat breads and pastas, barley, and oatmeal.
The evil king of all refined grains is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The amount of refined sugar we consume has declined over the past 40 years, but we’re consuming almost 20 times as much HFCS. According to researchers at Tufts University, Americans, for example, consume more calories from HFCS than any other source. It’s in practically EVERYTHING. It increases triglycerides, boosts fat-storing hormones, and drives people to overeat and gain weight. Adopt my zero-tolerance policy, and steer clear of this sweet “poison.”
Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin), and sucralose (Splenda) may be even harder on our metabolic systems than plain old sugar. These supposedly diet-friendly sweeteners may actually be doing more harm than good! Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners trick the brain into forgetting that sweetness means extra calories, making people more likely to keep eating sweet treats without abandon. Nip it in the bud. Scan ingredient labels and ban all artificial sweeteners from entering your mouth.
These preservatives are sometimes added to soda to prevent mold from growing, but benzene is a known carcinogen that is also linked with serious thyroid damage. Dangerous levels of benzene can build up when plastic bottles of soda are exposed to heat or when the preservatives are combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Don’t risk it, people.
BHA is another potentially cancer-causing preservative, but it has been deemed safe by the FDA. Its job is to help prevent spoilage and food poisoning, but it’s a major endocrine disruptor and can seriously mess with your hormones. BHA is in HUNDREDS of foods. It’s also found in food packaging and cosmetics. BHA has many aliases. You can look them up. Or you can follow my advice and DITCH processed foods altogether.
No that’s not a typo. These two different preservatives are found in processed meats like bacon, lunch meat, and hot dogs. They’re some of the worst offenders, and they’re believed to cause colon cancer and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes. Protect your health by always choosing fresh, organic meats.
The artificial colours blue 1 and 2, green 3, red 3, and yellow 6 have been linked to thyroid, adrenal, bladder, kidney, and brain cancers. Always seek out foods with the fewest artificial chemicals, especially when shopping for your kids. Look for colour-free medications and natural food products that don’t contain artificial colours like these.
Monosodium glutamate is a processed “flavor enhancer.” While glutamates are present in some natural foods, such as meat and cheese, the ones exploited by the processed-foods industry are separated from their host proteins through hydrolysis. The jury is still out on how harmful MSG may be, but high levels of free glutamates have been shown to seriously screw with brain chemistry. Don’t fall prey to chemical flavor enhancing. Just play it safe and flavor your food naturally.
Follow Dr. Alison Chen, ND on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrAlisonChenND