The 4 Most Common Food Toxins And What To Do About Them

most common food toxins

[Image credit: ultrakml)]

This article is part of the What We Should Really Be Eating? series.

Last week I showed why every Detox Diet Plan is a scam, and yes I’m not exaggerating. Detox diets don’t “detox” your body, yet they charge you a premium for this. Today I’ll follow up on this topic with real information about the toxins in our food and what to do about them.

My big question: Should I really be afraid of toxins? Is my food chock full of toxins that I should vigilantly watch out for? Or am I safe?

So I did my research – over 15 hours of research without including the time to write this article. My conclusion? I’m safer than ever. There are so many things I could be worrying about but food toxins is not one of them. I’m not saying I should neglect it, it’s just that I shouldn’t worry about it.

The brilliant Alison Bernstein, PhD – also known as Mommy, PhD – has joined forces with me to help you better understand what’s in our food. Let’s go!

Here’s what you’ll learn (click to jump to each section):

  • A. What’s the big deal about toxins in our food?
  • B. What are the most common food toxins you should know about?
    • Lead
    • Mercury
    • Phthalates (used in plastics)
    • Pesticides
  • C. Can safe doses of toxins accumulate in the body?
  • D. Best resources for your own toxin research
  • E. How much should you really worry about toxins?
  • F. What if you’re mom and worry for your kid?
  • G. How dangerous are food toxins in the grand scheme of things?

A. First – are food toxins that dangerous?

Toxins have been so extensively highlighted by the media, that there’s a widespread toxicophobia around us. To some extent this is justified, as bad practices of the past (think DDT) are still around to haunt us (DDT is persistent and does not go away that easily!)

However science has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1960s and the 1980s. Today’s chemicals cannot even be compared toxicity-wise with the chemicals used back then. We still feel as if we are in the 1960s or the 80s when in fact our world is much safer. And it’s very easy to get scared about pretty much anything. Quoting the SciBabe

“If I told you that a chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?

What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?”

That’s how easy it is to feel we live in a totally unsafe world, where anything can harm us. Especially when we forget that many substances can be dangerous – even water – if it’s served at the right dose. The dose does make the poison, but in our haste to come to a conclusion and oversimplify things, we neglect that critical fact.

B. The 4 Most Common Food Toxins

So what might be lurking in our food? Apparently lots of stuff, but in this article I’m investigating 4 of the most common vilified substances. Lead-pthalates-pesticides are almost everywhere in our food. Mercury is not as common as the other 3 but it’s quite well known and almost every woman has heard about it, and that’s why I had to address it.
Let me start with the heavy metals…


“Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.” (source: wikipedia)

Treatment: Removing the source of lead, and chelation therapy (notice how a detox diet plan is not a treatment option!)

How vulnerable are we?

Lead is in the atmosphere, it’s in candy, it’s even in your lipstick. Does that make you scared?

Before you freak out, remember that for every substance there’s a safe and an unsafe dose. The amount of lead in candy and lipsticks is minuscule. Those are regulated by the government so don’t fret. For instance, the FDA limit for lead in a lipstick’s color additives is 20 part per ml (ppm). The average amount contained in a lipstick is almost 20x below this level at 1.07pm.

But what about food? FDA mentioned that most products tested do have lead, but it’s in extremely low doses and hence there’s no concern: “Many food products would be expected to contain very small amounts of the element — in the range of parts per billion (ppb). A part per billion is equivalent to the value of one penny compared to that of 10 million dollars.”

Evidence our world today is safer than before: FDA reports that “dietary intake of lead by a 2-year-old child has dropped more than 90 percent since 1979.”


Symptoms typically include sensory impairment (vision, hearing, speech), disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination. (source : wikipedia)

Treatment: Removing the source of mercury, chelation therapy.

How vulnerable are we?

First, if you are pregnant, repeated exposure to methylmercury may increase the risk of damage to the fetus or cause miscarriage. Second, it depends on your fish consumption. The FDA draft guidelines suggest to avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel and limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.

Evidence our world today is safer than before: The FDA is currently revising their 2004 guidelines for pregnant women in order to encourage them to eat more fish! Read the draft here.

Phthalates (think plastic containers)

Phthalates are a family of chemicals used in plastics and many other products, including DBP, BBP, DINP and others. They are almost everywhere, in detergents, food, plastic containers and others. They can be inhaled as well as digested and are more riskier for children (Alison touches on this later on). According to the CDC:

Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.

As you see, we’re not yet sure if there are any effects from these substances.

Treatment: There’s no treatment as we’re not yet sure if there’s any effect on humans.

How vulnerable are we? We get exposed to them by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with products containing phthalates. Bottled water is no exception. Most importantly, kids get exposed to them by mouthing toys that include them. Kids are the ones that appear to be most at risk.

That said, cosmetics with phthalates have been cleared by the FDA as safe. There are also guidelines for the bottled water industry.

Evidence our world today is safer than before: There’s been action taken for phthalates in children’s toys: “The use of some phthalates has been restricted in the European Union for use in children’s toys since 1999.” (source: wikipedia) In the USA similar limiting laws for children’s toys have been introduced.


I thought – if there’s one thing that must be dangerous then that should be pesticides right? Everyone knows pesticides are bad. So I dived in the research. I was surprised with what I found.

Pesticides may cause acute and delayed health effects in people who are exposed. Pesticide exposure can cause a variety of adverse health effects, ranging from simple irritation of the skin and eyes to more severe effects such as affecting the nervous system, mimicking hormones causing reproductive problems, and also causing cancer. (source: wikipedia)

Treatment: There’s no particular treatment for pesticides.

How vulnerable are we?

Here’s where I was surprised. I definitely did not expect to discover that we’re not actually in high danger from pesticide use. We used to be back in the 1960s but pesticides have been getting safer and safer. Plus, pesticide residue in food is very little. Let me explain:

The Pesticide Data Program processed an annual report with a sampling of different food products and their residue levels. I was surprised to read in the most recent report that:

“Pesticides exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.23 percent (23 samples) of the total samples tested (9,990 samples).
Of these 23 samples, 17 were imported (74 percent), and 6 were domestic (26 percent). The samples containing pesticides that exceeded established tolerances included: 1 sample of broccoli, 1 sample of celery, 4 samples of green beans, 11 nectarine samples, 1 sample of plums, 1 sample of fresh raspberries, and 4 samples of summer squash.”

Now 0.23% is quite low, don’t you think?

Evidence our world today is safer than before:  Pesticides used to be highly toxic (think DDT). However, science has progressed by leaps and bounds since then. Nowadays, 95% of pesticide residues are less toxic than caffeine!

C. Can safe doses of toxins accumulate in the body?

Enter Alison Bernstein, PhD: We are constantly exposed to things in our environment that are both beneficial and harmful. While the vast majority of everyday exposures are far below a level that causes any acute toxicity, you may be concerned about the cumulative effects of frequent exposures.

There are two major mechanisms that I can hypothesize as a way for this to happen. First, a chemical that persists in your body could accumulate over time to a level with a toxic effect. Fortunately for us, scientists have been studying this and regulatory agencies have been phasing out many persistent chemicals and replacing them with non-persistent compounds. Thus, even if you are exposed to a non-persistent chemical every day, your body clears it, often in a matter of hours, and there is never enough of that compound present in your body at one time to do anything.

Second, a non-persistent compound that is present at a high enough dose could have a lasting effect through an epigenetic mechanism. However, this gets back to the issue of dose. If there isn’t enough around to have that epigenetic effect in the first place, there is still no toxic effect. In normal everyday life, we are unlikely to be exposed to those kind of doses.

E. Best resources for your own toxin research

If you are concerned about a specific chemical or a specific product (for example, you want to know if something is persistent or not or how long it takes for a non-persistent chemical to be cleared from your body), there are extensive resources available to find information about those compounds.

Toxicology information is available via:

Here’s an EPA site linking to multiple databases with info just about pesticides. This will very quickly get you down a rabbit hole of primary scientific literature, which is why agencies like the EPA issue reports and summaries based on all the evidence.

E. Should you worry about toxins?

Before you start really worrying out about persistent chemicals, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international treaty that went into effect in 2004. Its purpose is to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Examples of these chemicals that you may be familiar with include PCBs, DDT and PFOS. A full list can be found here. Since 2004, these chemicals have largely been phased out. Additional chemicals have also been added to this treaty since the initial list of 12 compounds. However, if they persist in our bodies, they also persist in the environment.

We are all exposed to them in small amounts that accumulate over time. This might sound scary, but if 95% of the population is exposed to a chemical and there is no consistent pattern of disease occurring in those people (no observational data to suggest a link), then it’s probably not having an effect. Also, most exposures that scientists are concerned about are occupational or accidental exposures that are much higher than exposures to the general population.

It’s really important to remember that our “environment” is not exposure to any single compound. It is the sum total of all the positive and negative exposures that happen to us. Each individual exposure likely has a small effect on its own and sometimes these effects even ‘cancel’ each other out.

Furthermore, “exposure” does not only refer to toxic chemical exposures. It’s also the climate you live in, the food you eat, how much you exercise, how much time you spend in the sun, what infections you get and even the stress caused by worrying about whether any of these exposures are toxic.

F. What if you’re a mom and worry for your kid? Putting things in perspective.

I like this quote from National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences podcast episode with Robin Whyatt, Dr.P.H. (She is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University and Deputy Director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health).

“People are exposed to a lot of different compounds but we know that eating a really good diet during pregnancy is absolutely critical and has enormous beneficial effects, that taking prenatal vitamins is very beneficial and probably the key thing in terms of a child’s development is stimulation of the child. Read to your child. Play with your child. Talk to your child. All those things are just incredibly important and probably have much more effect, positive effect than these chemicals are having negative effects.

So it’s really important to keep this in perspective. This is one exposure. It’s worth trying to avoid, but you can do a whole lot to help your child by the way you eat and by how you play with your child.”

While she is specifically talking about developmental exposures to phthalates, I think the take home message is important. Our health is affected by many things. The tiny effect that may occur due to an exposure, even a repeated one, to one of these compounds can probably be canceled out by any number of positive exposures.

G. How dangerous are food toxins in the grand scheme of things?

Hey, it’s Maria again. After spending more than 15 hours researching for this article – I came down to three conclusions:

  1. I’m much safer than I thought I was.
  2. Still, I should keep washing my fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue. This is common sense.
  3. I should keep an eye on but not necessarily worry about food toxins. Instead I can put my mental resources somewhere else. Let me expand on this.

I feel that even though our food is getting safer, our toxicophobia is getting worse.

Toxicophobia: An insane or greatly exaggerated dread of poisons.

I find two problems with this. First, toxicophobia makes you feel in danger. Feeling stressed will make your body produce cortisol. The side effects? Weight gain, depression, memory loss, and even brain damage.

All those things you’ve heard about how feeling stressed causes weight gain – well here you are! Still this is the less important side-effect of toxicophobia.

Most importantly, we spend out time worrying about something that might not be as important (food toxins), instead of spending our time on things that do require our attention.

Why devote your brilliant mental resources to toxicophobia-based concerns, instead of reading a thought-provoking book? Why, instead of thinking about toxins, don’t we think about what we can do to help the people in Nepal who just suffered a tragic earthquake this weekend?

Or, why not put our minds into doing a better job at work and getting a promotion? Or just spending more quality time with our family?

Or keeping our politicians in check and not letting things like the Rwandan genocide happen (almost 1 million people killed in 3 months – to compare, about 6 mil Jews were killed within 6 years by the Nazis)?

But wait, did you even know about the Rwandan genocide? Do you remember hearing about it? What do you really know about it?

If you’re like most people, probably not much. You probably don’t know that both ex-president Clinton and ex-general secretary of the UN Kofi Annan have apologized for not paying attention to the matter while it was happening and hence, letting hundreds of thousands of people die.

And who’s really holding them accountable for that?

That’s what happens when our attention is distracted by the minutiae. Every choice comes together with an opportunity cost. Because you’re choosing A, you cannot choose B. So by choosing to get preoccupied about food toxins, you’re choosing not to put your mind on another issue that might actually be more important or have a bigger effect in your life.

I’m not suggesting not to care what’s in our food. I’m not suggesting not to press for higher quality food and safer substances. What I am saying is that it’s time to get informed, do our research, and put things in perspective.

Hopefully, by reading this article you now have a better picture on what’s worrisome or not. Please leave a comment and let me know what insights you got from it.

Finally, big thanks again to Alison Bernstein, PhD for her contribution. Alison is a scientist studying Parkinson’s disease living in Atlanta with her husband, 2 kids and 2 cats. Follow her on her Mommy, PhD Facebook page and on Twitter.


P.S. A clarification by Alison: The first thing to clarify is the difference between a toxin and a toxicant. Technically, a toxicant is any substance with a toxic effect, while toxins are toxicants produced by living things. So a toxicologist will say “toxicant”, where the rest of us use the term “toxin.”

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  1. I’ve actually heard people say that eating fruits and veggies is dangerous because of the pesticides, so they eat more meat instead. Really? How can eating meat be better than eating fruits and veggies? There is so much confusing information out there and people don’t know who to believe.

    1. Hi Marli,

      Yes, I know that’s crazy! Misinformation happens because it’s so easy to make splashing news by vilifying foods. I too thought pesticides were pretty bad, until I did my homework this week, and dived into the research myself – meaning I didn’t just read other reporters’ opinions as part of my research, I actually looked into the data myself.

      Check out this letter sent to Dr. Oz accusing him for misinforming people, making them wanting to buy less veggies – http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/dirty_dozen_list_surfaces_again_122128829.html

      “The letter focuses on Oz’s assertion that eating produce with pesticide
      residues “would cause a person’s heart to race, eyes to dilate and
      asthma-like symptoms,” a statement the groups classify as medically and
      scientifically invalid.”

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Why aren’t farmers dying like flies? Why aren’t they having thousands of deformed children? Farmers are exposed to hugely more pesticide than most of the rest of us. Show me the bodies.

  2. I agree with your “keep an eye on but not necessarily worry about” approach—we could call it “Awareness Without Worry (AWW)!”

    With pthalates, I don’t think there’s really a question of whether they affect us—just how and at what levels. When I see, “more research is needed,” I prefer to err on the side of caution.

    And what about toxins created by high-heat cooking, i.e. HCAs and acrylamide?

    1. Frasier, thanks for your comment. About the other toxins you suggested, the quick answer is I don’t know, I’d have to do research first. So thanks for proposing new topics that could become new articles for the “What we should really be eating?” series 🙂

    2. I have read a little about acrylamide because of the new G.E. potato that will reduce its production when cooked at high temps. My impression is not to worry, but use moderation.

  3. I’m wondering about the credibility of this blog. I was skeptical going through this but when I got to the part the said ” More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.” as if the jury is out on Phthalates, it sounds like this page is an industry front group publication. There is extensive research on the dangers of Phthalates. All you have to do is google: “Phthalates scholarly articles” and you will come up with hundreds of them.

    1. Your blog kind of sounds similar to the The International Food Information Council website foodinsight. The International Food Information Council is a front group for the Sugar Association and the National Soft Drink Association among others and have a similar talking point. And that is- it’s all good, don’t worry be happy. They defend controversial food additives including monosodium glutamate, aspartame (Nutrasweet), food dyes, and olestra and say Arsenic just got a bad name from the movie Arsenic and Old lace.

    2. I was under the impression that the MSG paranoia died a long time ago, but I guess not. Just because a blog doesn’t succumb to chicken little announcements about our food supply does not mean it is industry funded. You can disagree with specific interpretations of evidence (although I think Maria did a good job), but you lack imagination if you insist on calling someone a shill even after she told you she is not.

    3. “blog doesn’t succumb to chicken little announcements about our food supply does not mean it is industry funded”

      Do you think that any blog just ignores all of the extensive evidence about potential dangers of food ingredients and is designed to act like concern over those ingredients is just hype is not likely to have industry funding?

      Do you think industry funding is a rare thing? I recommend the book and website by New York University professor Marion Nestle called “Food Politics”, it might open your eyes. There are hundreds of industry funded groups and right wing think tanks that are designed to appear like objective third party organizations but are designed to convince you that there products are just wonderful. But guess what, they never tell you that they are funded by the industries that produce the products that they are defending.

      “I was under the impression that the MSG paranoia died a long time ago”

      I take it you’re just dismissing my whole point and isolating the MSG?
      Have you ever actually read the research on Monosodium Glutamate? There’s actually quite a bit of it that you can find on Google Scholar (just in case you actually do research vs just believing articles that conform to your lifestyle).

      Incidentally I am skeptical of web pages that say it’s all good, don’t worry just be happy and eat your processed foods.
      Then these web resources list all of the food ingredients that there is extensive research on as being toxic to your system, but site one or two articles that say no problem here as they ignore every scientific study that doesn’t conform to that ideology.

      Believe anything you want, it’s your health!

      Just in case you’re interested in opening your eyes to industry funded front groups, here’s a list of well known ones:

    4. Oh my. I knew better than to engage with a conspiracy theorist, but I couldn’t help myself. Yes, I’ve read that book. And no, Maria is not a shill. That is all.

    5. Wow, I’m a conspiracy theorist because I pointed to thousands of scientific articles making my point and exposed what front groups are? So what are you implying is the conspiracy? the thousands of research articles or the fact that industries fund third party organizations to create the appearance of objectivity to glorify their products? Why don’t you try again?

    6. She is correct. You have commented in quite a few places. I recognize your name. I also recognize the shill accusations and strawman arguments. For example after making the point that more research was needed regarding plastics. She did not say “be happy and eat your processed foods” Front groups? Are you sure that none of your sources are actually front groups? MSG? http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?id=13279 Are these folks shills?

    7. Coming from a guy who has 6000 plus biotech and processed food promoting posts that doesn’t mean much. She’s right as long as you ignore the thousands of research articles that say different. There is extensive research on every one of the chemicals she is minimizing the health effects of. But I’ve been round and round with you biotech cheerleaders. Any science article that doesn’t conform to your agenda is bogus and every one that conforms to it is golden.

      Incidentally there are over 9000 of research studies on Phthalates in the Toxnet database that the vast majority say they are highly toxic Endocrine disruptors. If you were concerned about your credibility you would acknowledge them but you don’t and that makes it obvious you have an agenda.

    8. Well, we have a lie coming from a guy who doesn’t have the guts to leave his comment history open. Yet is 2 faced enough to criticize a guy who doesn’t hide anything. BTW the lie is claiming I have commented supporting processed foods. I have often criticized them and those who eat too many. Assuming you are referring to what many of us call junk food. Also by referring to a giant database instead of posting relevant articles you are probably deliberately making it difficult to verify or dispute your claims. Seems like a shady tactic to me. “right wing” so, “left wing” think tanks are OK?