Archive for the ‘Toxins in Food’ Category

Spinach, Burgers, Peanut Butter, Eggs…What Next?

August 26, 2010

I am troubled by the number of current news headlines related to not only the massive egg recall due to salmonella outbreaks but several other food recalls as well. Note I am troubled, not surprised. I recently read Paul Roberts’ disturbing book The End of Food (as uplifting as the title suggests) in which he writes about both the past and future of our industrialized food system. As you can imagine the future is a big question mark but he predicts increases in evidence that our food system is not only unsustainable but seriously broken – unsafe.

Normally I read such gloom and doom prophesies with skepticism, knowing such travesties could happen but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will happen. I try to stay positive, focusing on the evidence of change I see all over the country in terms of re-establishing local and regional food systems via the growth in farmers markets, CSAs, small farm cooperatives, and even home gardens. I find hope in the fact that people with varied political views have watched films like Food, Inc. and have made changes or are at least thinking about changes they can make in their food buying habits.

I am not convinced however, that we really grasp the trouble we are in right now in terms of our food system. The fact that eggs from one or two large farms can sicken so many people across a huge swath of the country is one thing, the fact that we don’t know how it started or what to do about it is quite another.

I’m tired of the onus of responsibility for not getting sick being on us, the eaters. If I want to eat my eggs cooked over medium or my burgers medium rare then it’s my fault if I get sick.  I’m also tired of reading that companies are so generously volunteering to recall tainted foods given they don’t have to do so according to current laws. So we should give them a badge of honor for making some effort to take back defective products? What is wrong with this picture?

So, this is a rant. I don’t have the answers – just more questions. I believe the local food movement is important but I still rely on our industrialized food system for foods I either can’t get locally or can’t afford at the “true cost” of those foods. I struggle with the fact that I need to change my personal eating habits to save the world, knowing that my habits alone won’t do the job. I already eat way less meat than the average American, lots of plant foods including organic, locally or regionally grown varieties, and aim for more whole than processed and packaged foods. Despite what the optimists advocate, all of this clearly isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong – these practices do keep me healthy and feeling good most of the time and that is part of my reason for making these choices. But I don’t have any illusions I am saving the planet or helping to feed any of the billion or so “food insecure” people worldwide. One thing I do know is that we all need to get angry and then, more importantly, take some kind of action. As the cost of food rises, as it will most certainly continue to do with rising oil costs rippling throughout the food production and distribution chain, we must demand it be safe. How this will happen will be an ongoing source of debate I’m sure.

Meanwhile, I will continue to be optimistic and do my small part to support alternatives to the current food system and think about the famous Betty Reese quote “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

Aflatoxin – The Peanut Butter Scare Lives On

May 3, 2010

I have been asked many times over the years about the safety of peanut butter due to aflatoxin, a carcinogen that is produced by a mold that can grow on peanuts. After a bit of digging I came up with some information that may be helpful.

First, aflatoxin is a naturally-occurring toxin that can contaminate a variety of common crops including cereals (such as corn and wheat), oil seeds (including peanuts), spices and tree nuts. It is also found in the milk of animals given contaminated feed. This toxic substance can contaminate crops before harvest and during storage. Crops with prolonged exposure to a hot, humid environment or that are damaged due to stressful growing conditions such as drought are more susceptible to aflatoxin contamination.

Aflatoxin can cause a number of liver problems including liver cancer and aflatoxicosis is influenced by age, sex, nutritional status, and health as well as both the level and duration of exposure to the toxin. The FDA has established safe levels of aflatoxin for both human food (20 parts per billion) and animal feed (up to 300 ppb) and both peanuts and products made from them are tested regularly. According to the USDA website no cases of aflatoxicosis have been reported in the U.S. – only in third world countries.

Interestingly, some research shows that eating are regular diet that includes apiaceous vegetables such as carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley (and a number of herbs and spices) can decrease the carcinogenic effects of aflatoxin. Good news for the “ants in a log” fans (celery stuffed with peanut butter and raisins)! There is also research that demonstrates chlorophyll (a green pigment that occurs in plants and algae) can reduce the absorption of aflatoxin in humans.

According the Dr. Andrew Weil’s website the Consumers Union investigated aflatoxin levels in several brands of peanut butter sold in the U.S. (early 2000’s?) and found the major brands such as Peter Pan, Jif and Skippy had less than the fresh peanut butter sold in health food stores. I have also seen recommendations not to purchase bulk grains, nuts and seeds to avoid the possibility of contamination though there is no proof the bulk varieties pose a problem.

In general, keeping nuts, nut butters, seeds, and grains that you don’t use quickly in the refrigerator or freezer may be a good practice to prevent the hot, moist environments that favor aflatoxin growth. Other advice includes: avoid eating nuts that look moldy, discolored or shriveled – perhaps an obvious choice for most of us. The recommendation to choose only major brands of peanut butter is conservative but may put anxious parents at ease…though there are added sugars and trans fats to consider in some of these choices.

All things considered, I love peanut butter – and many of the other whole, nutritious foods that are susceptible to aflatoxin, and this new information is not enough to make me forego these foods. Given the amount of peanut butter the average American eats (especially kids) if this were truly a major public health issue I think we’d know about it beyond the random articles published in cyberspace.  I do keep all of my nuts, seeds and nut butters in the fridge or freezer (they stay fresher that way – aflatoxin or not) along with grains such as corn meal and whole wheat flour that I use in baking (mainly because I don’t bake often). I also eat a variety of vegetables and herbs and spices regularly – with carrots and all kinds of green stuff as staples in my diet, so I guess I’m covered if these plants actually do end up being protective. As always, I believe in balance.