Food Toxicity: What Can I Eat?

By Dr. Ola Buhr

Our modern day foods at the super market are now inundated with chemicals and additives. At times it may feel overwhelming just choosing what to consume. I believe that knowing what to eat can be simple; however, following a pure whole foods lifestyle for some people may be very hard. Educating ourselves about the chemicals in our food and the ways certain foods are manufactured can give us the power to make better choices for ourselves and our bodies. This article will focus on all of the artificial ‘made in a lab’ chemicals that cumulatively are making us sick, overweight, depressed, and chronically ill as a society. I hope that, by uncovering the truth about these toxic ingredients, it will make us think twice about reaching for those energy bars, packaged cereals, Cheetos, and donuts. Eating pure, organic, nutrient-dense, whole foods has always been a priority here at the Riordan Clinic. By consuming a diet predominantly of organic vegetables, fruits, grass-fed meats, legumes, sustainably caught fish, seeds, nuts, and whole grains we will promote our longevity, prevent illnesses, and even reverse chronic diseases…not to mention help us stay lean and feel beautiful.

Where do we start? Anytime you take a packaged food product off the shelf at a grocery store, look at the ingredient label before you drop it in your cart. Remember, a food additive is “any substance added during the production, processing, or storage of food.” And most of the stuff on the shelves today is full of these man-made chemicals. Don’t just pay attention to the amounts of calories, carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats in the product. Look at the ingredient list. Are you reading stuff that you can’t pronounce? Does it sound like it came from Jekyll and Hyde’s laboratory? Is the first or second ingredient listed sugar? Know what you’re buying and know what you’re consuming. Unfortunately, the majority of these food companies care about their bottom lines and not the quality of their product. These companies spend millions of dollars lobbying government officials and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to vote on certain laws, rules, and regulations allowing these substances to enter our food supply. In the last 60 years the food science and technology field has greatly expanded from creating approximately 800 food additives in 1958 to  having over 10,000 chemicals making their way onto our dinner plates now. Many of these chemicals have never been studied and are “generally recognized as safe”, and more than 5,000 ingredients aren’t even required to be listed. If research has taken place it is often performed by the food company itself, ingredients are tested on animals and often given for a relatively short time with unreliable doses. Generally, the cumulative effect of these ingredients is never explored. For an average person who may consume three processed meals a day, the potential toxicity of the additive amounts of pesticides, trans-fats, artificial colorings, preservatives, GMOs, and high fructose corn syrup is rarely considered.


Sugar a.k.a. the legal drug or “white death”.

Refined and processed sugar has entered nearly every food on the grocery store shelf. Yes, it may make food taste good and it adds to the flavor, but the large quantities in beverages, cereals, cookies, and crackers has lead us to be a very overweight nation. We already know that over-consuming sugar leads to a multitude of health conditions and we need to be vigilant in eating less and avoiding it if at all possible. A typical American now consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day! Manufacturers also know that sugar is addictive, it makes us feel better (temporarily), and it’s used as a comfort food. When we consume sugar it becomes stored in our tissues and fat cells in the form of triglycerides, giving rise to those dreaded love handles. Let’s not forget that half of the US production of sugar comes from GMO sugar beets, many of which are added to shelf stable foods and candies. Remember large food corporations like Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Kraft still use GMO sugar beets in their products.

Watch out for the sneaky high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
This highly processed industrialized food product is very sweet syrup made from corn (usually the genetically modified kind). It is cheaper than sugar (because of the government farm bill corn subsidies) and therefore ubiquitous in our soft drinks, breads, flavored yogurts, and sauces. HFCS consists of glucose and fructose and, since there is no chemical bond between them, they skip the process of digestion and get rapidly absorbed into our bloodstream. Fructose directly enters the liver and begins a process of lipogenesis (which literally means fat production), creating fats like triglycerides and cholesterol. This is a major cause of fatty liver disease in our country, putting many people at risk for liver cirrhosis and early death. The absorbed glucose also causes insulin levels to spike (our body’s major fat storage hormone). Yes, high fructose corn syrup makes us fat, and if we care about our bodies and about the way we look we should avoid this chemical.

Artificial Preservatives
These are synthetic chemicals, many of which are petroleum derivatives, used to preserve food and beverages. Hundreds of these compounds literally embalm thousands of packaged foods waiting to be purchased. These chemicals prevent foods from spoiling and going rancid. Not only are they integrated into the food itself, but are also present in plastic bags and packaging materials. Thanks to these preservatives, a McDonald’s cheeseburger can sit on your kitchen counter for 4 weeks and still look the same. These preservatives can even prevent an ice-cream sandwich from melting. Natural preservatives include ascorbic acid, vinegar, and salt, and are safe to eat. Artificial preservatives that are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA and include: calcium propionate, disodium EDTA, nitrates/nitrites, potassium benzoate, potassium sorbate, sulfur dioxide, and sodium propionate. Also avoid BHA and BHT, which are petroleum derivatives used to preserve fats and oils. They have shown to cause cancers in rodents and therefore are illegal in Europe.

Skip these additives whenever possible, choose the fresh stuff!

Artificial Colors
Thanks to the wonderful world of chemistry, we’ve created vibrant colors for our industrial ‘food-like’ products, and many of them have inundated the market for children’s food. These products are made from anything but nature, and again, the majority of them originate from petroleum and coal tar…mmm coal tar. The main concerns about coal tar derivatives are that they cause cancer in animals, flare allergic reactions, and induce hyperactivity in children. FD & C (Food Drug and Cosmetic Colors) come in a wide variety of pigments, some of which include, but are not limited to blue # 1, red # 40, yellow # 5, and my personal favorite, “caramel coloring”. I find it unfortunate that the majority of these compounds are found in foods advertised to children.

Refined and enriched flours
Most flour has been stripped of nutrients and fiber and then “enriched” with synthetic nutrients. In an attempt to look white and more desirable, many of these flours go through a process of bleaching with chlorine and peroxide. Sugar is then added to make it taste better. Look for ingredients that say “sprouted whole wheat” or “whole grain”, and avoid the rest. Remember that commercially baked foods and flour-based products at the grocery store are likely to be made from refined and enriched flour.

Dough Conditioners
These are substances that enhance the texture of dough and can be found in foods like cupcakes, breads, biscuits, and muffins. Try to avoid ingredients such as potassium bromate, monoglycerides, diglycerides, DATEM, and azodicarbonamide, which have shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and again, induce allergies and asthma in humans.

Growth hormones and antibiotics in meat
Whenever possible, please choose organically grown pasture-raised meats and free range eggs. Our modern day factory farming methods have had deleterious effects on our environment, compromised the safety of factory workers, and contributed to the inhumane treatment of animals. Not only are these animals injected with growth hormones to fatten them up quickly, they are fed a species inappropriate diet of GMO grains, and are also given antibiotics, because of their cramped and unsanitary living conditions. Bovine growth hormones cause the cow to grow quickly, but traces of these hormones may still be found in the fat, muscle, and milk of the animal. Observations made by two Japanese researchers, who published their study in Annals of Oncology in 2009, revealed that an increase of hormone-dependent cancers in humans paralleled the growth of beef consumption in Japan. The European Union and countries such as New  Zealand, Australia, and Canada have banned the use of growth hormones on animals. Also, 80% of antibiotics used in this country are applied in the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and are rapidly contributing to the formation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a.k.a. super bugs. “Organic Certified” means “free of growth hormones and antibiotics”. On the other hand, a label like “natural” is basically a marketing term designed to make the consumer think they are buying something wholesome and real, but contrary to popular belief, these products are still manipulated and adulterated by food companies. As of today, there are no set standards created by the FDA for what qualifies a product as “natural”. If the product says natural on the front label, make sure you look at the ingredient list on the back, too.

Artificial Sweeteners
Obesity has hit epidemic proportions and the diet industry is making billions of dollars every year from desperate Americans who want to lose weight. Low calorie sweeteners have no nutritional value and studies have shown that consuming them actually causes us to crave and eat more carbs. These sweeteners do not actually help with weight loss, but are nonetheless crammed into diet foods beverages, candy, and other desserts. Artificial sweeteners include chemicals such as aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, sucralose, saccharin, tagatose, erythritol, acesulfame potassium, and we know them by brand names like NutraSweet, Sweet’ N Low, Equal, and Splenda.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Purchase foods that are either organic or have the “Non-GMO Project” verification label. Be aware that approximately 70% of processed food contains GMOs. Let us also be conscious of the fact that food corporations have spent millions of dollars in recent years making sure our foods don’t carry GMO labels (although it is mandatory to label these items in Europe). Please read the accompanying article in this newsletter for more details about frankenfoods…I mean GMOs.

Let’s prevent lifestyle driven diseases.
Now is the perfect time of year to enjoy the myriad of farmer’s markets in your city. You can purchase fresh, local, organic foods that are in season. Foods grown on a local farm are more nutritious and flavorful. If you see a vegetable that’s new to you, be adventurous, buy it and give it a try! You may even discover a new favorite food.

As Mark Schatzker so eloquently wrote in his book ‘The Dorito Effect’, “a strawberry contains vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B6, biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, boron, iron, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, omega-3s, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and fiber along with anywhere from three to five thousand known plant secondary compounds, including ellagic acid, lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene, and three hundred or so aromatic compounds, about eighty of which we can pin down…food companies have no idea how to make a cracker that complex…we can’t make food pleasurable without resorting to cheap thrills like fat, sugar, carbs, and MSG.” So let’s avoid the cheap, high calorie, nutrient-poor processed foods and enjoy what mother earth has provided us for thousands of years.

• American Academy of Environmental Medicine. Genetically Modified Foods.
• American Cancer Society. Known and Probably Human Carcinogens.
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United
• Environmental Working Group. EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives: Generally Recognized as Safe—But Is It? www.
• Handa, Y., et al. Estrogen conecntrations in beef and human hormone-dependent cancers. Annals of Oncology 20 (2009): 1610–1611.
• Schatzker, Mark. The Dorito Effect. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015. Print.