ACSH on 'Toxic' Holiday Meals

Gary Greenberg Gary.Greenberg at Duke.Edu
Sun Nov 19 17:33:02 EST 2000

American Council on Science and Health 

(Moderator Note: ACSH is an organization solidly skeptical about new
claims of environmental health dangers. Their editorials & press
releases are presented to the OEM-L forum in an effort to provoke
intellectual discussion, not as an endorsed point of view. For contrast,
see the newsletters posted from RACHEL. -G)

November 17, 2000 

See also ACSH Holiday Dinner Menu 

Holiday Repast Contains Many Chemicals: Natural Ones

by Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D. 

For the past few decades, Americans have been manifesting a chronic
condition best described as "chemicalphobia." All around us, ads brag
that products are "100% natural" or "organic" or chemical free." Many
consumers think that "chemical" is the opposite of "natural"—and the
opposite of "good." 

Viewed in this context, the 100-percent natural Holiday Dinner Menu that
the American Council on Science and Health publishes each year comes as
quite an eye-opener. Here is a typical American holiday feast—literally
everything from soup to nuts—and it's not only 100-percent natural, but
100-percent chemical, too. And all the chemicals come with the
compliments of Mother Nature. 

But don't panic: These natural chemicals as well as their synthetic
counterparts are safe in the amounts that are found in our foods. 

According to some self-styled consumer advocates, the only way to be
sure your holiday dinner is safe is to serve certified organic,
pesticide-free everything. Otherwise, the doomsayers claim, you're not
only stuffing yourself with more calories than you'd normally eat in
three days, you're also packing in untold amounts and varieties of
pesticides, herbicides, and other nasty, cancer-causing products of
technology run amok. And, warn the pantry police, any or all of these
unnatural and unwelcome substances will at some point cause dire health
problems for you and your loved ones. 

There are at least two problems with this scenerio.. 

First, it ignores the fact that for years the federal Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) has been telling us that the foremost risk to food
safety in this country comes not from man-made pesticide residues but
from microorganisms—"100% natural" bacteria and viruses and the like. 

Second, this dire picture of a Frankensteinian feast neglects the simple
truth that all foodstuffs—whether organic or not, whether processed or
not—likely contain substances that we know can cause cancer when tested
in laboratory animals (usually rodents). Your all-natural, organic
goodies are full of stuff that's just as "bad" as those awful, unnatural
"chemicals" that the food police like to harangue you about. 

Let's take a look at some of the foods on a typical holiday table—and
see just what Mother Nature has provided for us in the way of rodent

That fresh relish tray—with its carrots, cherry tomatoes, and
celery—contains such proven rodent carcinogens as caffeic acid,
benzaldehyde, and quercetin glycosides. And that green salad drizzled
with a piquant basil-mustard vinaigrette features estragole and allyl
isothiocyanate—two more rodent carcinogens. 

What about the entrees? 

We've got both roast beef and roast turkey on our menu this year. And
both will provide us with heterocyclic amines—products of the roasting
process. As an added treat, the bread stuffing—a moist and fragrant
blend of bread, onions, celery, black pepper, and mushrooms—will give us
such rodent carcinogens as benzo(a)pyrene, ethyl carbamate, furfural,
and safrole. 

The other vegetables on the holiday table, essential as they are for
good health, also provide us with some rather interesting "natural
additives." Those steamed broccoli spears contain allyl isothiocyanate;
that crispy baked potato is laced with ethyl alcohol and caffeic acid;
those festive sweet potatoes offer more furfural. 

On to dessert. 

Ah, yes: Not only is the traditional holiday dessert course famously
laden with calories—it also has its share of chemicals. That pumpkin pie
(made from scratch, of course)offers benzo(a)pyrene. The apple pie (also
from scratch, and made from local apples) contributes its share of
caffeic acid. And both pies contain safrole. 

Restricting your dessert choice to fresh fruits won't help,
either—except perhaps in the calorie department. Those fresh apples,
pears, grapes, and mangos all contain one or more of the following:
acetaldehyde, caffeic acid, and quercetin glycosides. 

And what about that tempting tray of mixed nuts? 

Step right up for aflatoxins and furfural! 

Even the beverages that accompany your holiday feast hold a few
surprises. The red wine (a fine California Pinot Noir) of course
contains ethyl alcohol; it also offers ethyl carbamate and
methylglyoxal. And the coffee! That complex and fragrant brew serves up
benzo(a)pyrene, benzene, benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, and the
truly eye-opening 1,2,5,6-dibenz(a)anthracene—and that's just for

If, hoping to avoid such compounds, you decide to skip the coffee and
opt instead for a more "natural" herbal tea, think again. Comfrey tea
contains the rodent carcinogen symphytine, and jasmine tea offers a hint
of benzyl acetate. 

It's enough to give a worrywart a good case of indigestion. 

But remember: Not only are such natural rodent carcinogens widely
prevalent in human diets, our intake of these substances is at least ten
thousand times higher than our intake of the synthetic pesticides or
additives that have been designated rodent carcinogens. 

So should we avoid the holiday feast? 

Not at all. It's important that we maintain a realistic perspective
about all of these rodent carcinogens—both the ones that Mother Nature
adds and the ones that we might add ourselves. 

When potentially carcinogenic compounds are tested in laboratory
rodents, they are given to the animals in very high doses every day for
at least two years. Even if all these compounds were found to be
carcinogenic in humans, the doses it would take to bring on cancer would
often be astronomical—and would be impossible to consume. 

For example, white bread—the everyday sort you might use to make the
stuffing for your holiday turkey—contains the rodent carcinogen
furfural. But for you to consume an amount of furfural equivalent to the
amount given to rodents in laboratory tests, you would have to eat
82,600 slices of bread every day—an obviously impossible task. 

Furthermore, scientific studies have clearly demonstrated that the
healthiest diets for humans are those that contain ample quantities of
fruits and vegetables—along with their component rodent carcinogens.
(And please note: These studies were not restricted to people eating
organically grown, pesticide-free produce!) 

To keep your holiday meal truly safe, pay heed to the important food
safety issues: Follow reasonable food-handling procedures such as
cooking meats thoroughly, washing fresh produce carefully, and avoiding
cross-contamination. That way, you can ensure that your holiday meal is
as safe as it is festive, flavorful, and filling. There's no need to
fear that traces of rodent carcinogens—natural or synthetic—in your
feast will damage your health. 

If you wish to respond to this editorial please email your comments to
forum at acsh.org, or visit the ACSH FORUMS at
www.acsh.org/forum/chemicals/index.html to post them directly. 

Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH    Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu     Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website:                      http://occhealthnews.com


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