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Understanding Food Safety

By: the American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Natural Food Toxins

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. The natural toxin aflatoxin is produced by molds growing on peanuts, corn and other nuts and grains in warm, humid silos.

In addition to choosing, preparing and storing food carefully, safe eating involves considering what goes into the food before you ever come into contact with it. Without even considering chemicals that may be added to preserve or prepare foods, we must pay attention to the chemicals that occur naturally in foods.

Many people worry about what is added to the foods we eat. While it's hard to argue against natural and organic, it's not always clear what that means. The word natural had a lot of cachet in the 1970s. It was perceived as referring to foods with no additives or added sugar.

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In reality, it meant little, and it still means little. There is no legal definition of the word natural. Perhaps that's because foods in their natural state contain many chemicals -- both good and bad. For instance, butter and sugar are natural, but you don't see anyone willing to hawk them as health foods.

To signify a diet based on real foods in their natural state, we prefer the term whole foods. However, not even all whole foods are always good for you. There are literally tens of thousands of toxins found naturally in foods -- by some estimates more than 10,000 times the number of man-made pesticides.

Aflatoxin. For the most part people don't worry about natural toxins because they can't do anything about them. That's not entirely true. A good example is aflatoxin, one of the more pervasive toxins. It's a known carcinogen in animals and most likely in humans, too. It's produced by molds that grow on peanuts, corn, and other nuts and grains that sit in warm, humid silos. There are government limits on the amount of aflatoxin that can end up in peanut butter. Most experts believe it is way too high. Fortunately, most peanut butter falls far below this limit, but fresh-ground peanut butters sold in health food stores tested rather high by Consumer's Union in past years. Name brands fared much better.

How can you avoid aflatoxin? You can't entirely. Even Consumer's Union concedes that eating peanut butter once every ten days poses a seven times higher risk of cancer than most pesticides, but you can reduce the risk. Don't eat peanut butter every day, or look for a mail-order brand (Walnut Acres is one) that is very low in aflatoxin levels. If you eat fresh peanuts in the shell, reject any that look dark, shriveled, discolored, or soft. If any nut or grain looks moldy or discolored, throw it out.

Solanine. Another natural toxin, solanine, is found in some potatoes. Your mother told you not to eat potatoes with a green tinge and to throw away sprouted potatoes, and she was right.

Hydrazines. Mushrooms, when eaten raw, are a source of potentially cancer-causing hydrazines. Because they're inactivated when cooked, this is a case where cooked is better than raw.

Psoralens. Produced in moldy celery, this relatively mild natural toxin can give you a skin rash when you're in the sun -- a reaction called photosensitivity.

There are many, many more natural toxins. You can't avoid them all. Simply eat a varied diet, without overdoing any one particular food. That way, one toxin cannot build up and hurt you. By spreading out your food choices you are, in effect, hedging your bets.

But what about non-natural elements added to food? In the past, additives have received a mixed reaction. On the next page, find out which are helpful, and which aren't.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.