Foods You Thought Were Healthy But Aren’t
Here are 6 foods or classifications of food that should be avoided or at least eaten in moderation because the risk isn’t worth it.
I’m a little hesitant to recommend that you should avoid certain foods because of chemical contamination. I mean, I get it. It seems that everything causes cancer or liver damage or diabetes.
And let’s not forget all the “endocrine disrupters” in the water that give fish gender dysphoria and, if ingested in sufficient quantities, presumably make men grow spectacular hooters while making their testicles go Ant Man.
I call it carcinogen/endocrine disrupter fatigue. It gets tedious. It gets annoying. It probably makes you roll up your eyeballs so hard that you knock some pigeons off a telephone wire, especially when you find out something like smoking – universally acknowledged as dangerous – only causes lung cancer in 10 to 15% of lifelong smokers.
Along the same lines, it seems that for every report that says some formerly thought-to-be-innocuous ingredient could kill you, there’s some sort of anecdotal report about how some grandma drank a piping hot cup of raw, chemical sludge, with a cinnamon stick in it, every day until she died on the rugby pitch at the age of 99.
The impulse, no doubt, is to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards it all: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the endocrine disrupters don’t get you the whiskey must.
However, there are some foods that really should be avoided, or at least eaten in moderation because the risk isn’t worth it. In most cases, avoidance shouldn’t be that big a deal, especially when there are substitutions that can be made or end-arounds that can be taken.
With that in mind, here are a few foods you really should consider staying clear of.
1. Health Food Store Peanut Butter
The common impulse is that anything from a health food store is good, while anything made by soulless industrial giants is over-processed garbage – their manufactured jars, cans, and brightly colored packages containing nothing but effluvium or dreck or other fancy words for crap.
That’s not always the case, though. Consider the processing of peanuts, which are known to often host one of the most powerful and potentially dangerous carcinogens in existence. These carcinogens, known as aflatoxins, come to us courtesy of molds from the Aspergillus family, which happen to use peanuts, among other foodstuffs, as their homestead.
Aflatoxins have one peculiar physical property, though: They fluoresce under a black light. As such, big peanut-butter manufacturing companies can use this property against them. The unshelled peanuts, prior to being processed, travel along a conveyor belt that has ultraviolet lights shining over them. Any peanuts that fluoresce are removed by workers and discarded (for you old-timers, think of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory).
But health food stores? The only black lights they have are in the manager’s office above the blacklight Jimmy Hendrix poster on the wall. That means that despite their best intentions, the peanut butter they make themselves – or possibly the peanut butter they buy from small, local peanut butter artisans – might be tainted with aflatoxins.
My Recommendation: Skip the health food store stuff and buy the peanut butters manufactured by the big guys, the ones consisting of only peanuts, water, and salt (organic, if possible).
2. Any Food Product That’s Packaged in Plasticized Paper
A few years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) presented the results of three studies they’d conducted on 16 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) they’d found in various foods. PFAS are of concern because 1), they’re toxic at very low levels and 2), they’re considered to be “forever chemicals” because practically nothing short of the sun going supernova will destroy them.
They’re also found in practically everything: water, food, and just about anything manufactured on a broad scale. However, companies like to use wrapping papers that contain PFAS because they’re water and grease resistant. So back to that FDA report. While some hot dogs they sampled had 134 parts per trillion (PPT) of PFAS, the three samples of chocolate cake they’d mixed contained 17,640 PPT of PFAS.
The primary source wasn’t the flour, the eggs, or any other ingredient. Instead, it was from the grease-proofed paper that the cakes had been wrapped in.
And it’s not just grease-proofed paper we have to be careful of. Grease and water resistance is also used in take-out boxes and clam shells, baking paper and muffin cups, take-out cups and ice cream tubs, French fry and popcorn packaging, biscuits and sweets packaging, and bread and pastry packaging.
Kill me now, right?
And that’s not all. There are also a shocking number of chemicals called phthalates in fast food wrappers. Phthalates are used as “plasticizers” to increase the durability of different materials. They’re also known to be “anti-androgens” and have been shown to affect the sexual development of children, in addition to causing neurodevelopmental and neurobehavioral problems.
The U.S. has banned the use of these plasticizers in children’s toys, but they’re still found in food containers and, somewhat ironically, in food wrapping papers like those found in children’s Happy Meals.
While some heroic researchers are proposing that these water and grease-resistant materials be replaced by things like cellulose-based materials, bamboo, palm leaf, clay, wheat straw, and vegetable parchment, we’re a long way away from having any of that implemented.
My Recommendation: I wish I had a great strategy to avoid these chemicals, but I don’t. All I can suggest is that you be aware of them, hyper-aware of them, and try to channel your inner great granny and make more of your own food at home. You still won’t be able to avoid ubiquitous PFAS, but you can certainly limit your exposure by more than a hundred-fold.
3. Freshwater Fish
Speaking of PFAS, of which there are probably about 4,000 different types in use, a recent analysis of government reports compiled from more than 500 samples of freshwater fish (fish living in streams, rivers, and lakes across the U.S.) showed that they’re contaminated with big-time levels of PFAS.
These samples had levels of PFAS almost 300 times higher than fish from other sources, including the ocean and farm-raised. It gets worse. The chief “species” of PFAS found in these fish (comprising 74% of the total) was found to be perflurooctanesulfonic acid, aka PFOS, which are known to be particularly harmful to human health, possibly leading to cancer (what else?) and/or damage to the cardiovascular and reproductive systems.
While PFAS have found their way into almost all waterways, the Great Lakes seem to harbor the heaviest concentration. That’s because they’re big, their periphery is dotted with lots of industry, and because their waters empty into the ocean much more slowly than other bodies of water. Goodbye Great Lakes whitefish. Goodbye walleye, perch, trout, and muskies.
But like I said, this contamination has spread to virtually all rivers and lakes in the continental United States. It’s so bad that just eating one freshwater fish a year can measurably increase PFAS levels in your body, or so says David Andrews, one of the authors of the paper.
The current administration has implemented some steps to restrict further PFAS contamination, but as I said, the stuff that’s already out there will outlive us all.
So, if you’re a city boy, it’s best you familiarize yourself with species of freshwater fish so you don’t inadvertently pick up the wrong stuff from Trader Joe’s or Sprouts. There’s an exception, though: Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, freshwater fish labeled as “farm-raised” seem to have fewer PFAS and PFOS than fish living wild.
One species I haven’t mentioned yet is salmon, which are known as “anadromous,” which means they live in both fresh and saltwater and probably prefer the pronouns “they” and “them.”
While salmon are part-time freshwater fish, they apparently have far less PFOS/PFAS contamination than their freshwater cousins. This is probably for two reasons, 1), they spend most of their lives in saltwater and 2), most (the Pacific variety) are from Alaska, which isn’t yet quite the sewage dump that the lower 48 is (yet).
It’s a good idea, however, to avoid the farm-raised variety of salmon, but it’s not because of PFAS or PFOS. Instead, they harbor high levels of another shit chemical – polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). The levels are usually 8 times that found in wild salmon. PCB, like most of the vile contaminants, is a potent endocrine disrupter, in addition to having devastating effects on the immune system.
My Recommendation: If you have a hankering for freshwater fish, choose farm raised. If you’re hungering for salmon, pick one that’s from Alaska or waters near Alaska.
4. Raisins, Strawberries, Spinach
Every year, farmers dump about 1.3 million pounds of pesticides on U.S. crops. That equates to about 6 pounds of tumor-growing pesticides on every acre of farmland.
Of the 35,000 registered pesticides used in this country, fewer than 21% have been tested for carcinogenicity. Fewer than 10% have been tested for their potential to cause mutations, and fewer than 40% have been tested for their potential to cause birth defects.
The good thing is that we’ve banned plenty of pesticides, and since we’re nothing but savvy – if not unscrupulous – businessmen, the U.S. exports between 100 and 150 million tons of these banned pesticides every year to suckers in other countries.
Unfortunately, we get suckered back as we import 40% of all our fruit and about 12% of all our vegetables back from these countries, so it’s possible we end up eating these banned pesticides anyway.
Even if we’re not ingesting the pesticides we explicitly banned, we do know that imported fruits and vegetables in general usually have three times the amount of pesticides that our grown-in-the U.S. counterparts have, and the FDA only manages to check about 1% of the stuff we import.
That’s not to say U.S.-grown produce is much better. One-third of the home-grown versions contain multiple residues, exposing us to cancer-causing chemicals and possible neurological disorders, not to mention disturbing endocrine disruptions.
As you might guess, some fruits and vegetables are worse than others. Some, because of their leafy configuration, attractiveness to certain insects or fungi, or length of the growing season, require more pesticide than others.
Every year, the Consumers Union and a research group named the Environmental Working Group use data from the FDA to compile a list of these worst offenders. Almost every year, strawberries and spinach lead the pack.
Strawberries are particularly vulnerable because they’re thin-skinned and because they lie mostly on the ground, just begging for insect/fungal infestation/contamination. As such, they’re exposed to as many as 45 different pesticides. Spinach, along with its leafy friends, kale, collards, and mustard greens, have been found to be contaminated by 103 different chemicals. Spinach was the most contaminated, though: 1.8 times the pesticide residue of any other crop tested.
Raisins are a relative newcomer to the top of the list. Of more than 750 raisin samples analyzed, 99 percent were found to have at least two pesticides and one sample had 26 different pesticides. I’m not sure why they’re so “dirty,” though. It may just be a side effect of being so wrinkly. Maybe it’s like grandma’s cold cream in that the chemicals get caught in all the wrinkles and are hard to wash out without using a power washer.
Other dirty fruits and vegetables include bell peppers, cherries, peaches, celery, apples, green beans, apricots, cucumbers, and pears, but strawberries, spinach, and raisins are clearly the worst.
My Recommendation: While it’s no absolute guarantee that organic fruits and vegetables are completely pesticide free, they’re still your best bet. You might also choose to buy directly from a local farmer where, unless his nickname is “Carcinogen Carl,” your chances of procuring cleaner produce are better.
Alternately, you could mix about two tablespoons of baking soda into a gallon of warm water, after which you would need to soak your fruits or vegetables for 8 to 12 minutes, or at least until your patience runs out. Then rinse. This method has been shown to remove about 90% of the pesticides, but as you can see, it’s a pain in the ass.
5. Brown Rice
Unfortunately, rice in general tends to absorb arsenic more readily than other plants. But here’s where we need to make a distinction. There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Be aware, though, that in this case, “organic” doesn’t mean it was raised on a farm without chemicals and allowed to run free with the wind blowing through its chemical tresses. Instead, it refers to molecules that have a framework of carbon atoms.
Organic arsenic is also harmless. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s practically ubiquitous. Inorganic arsenic, on the other hand, doesn’t contain carbon, but it is highly toxic. The latter is the kind we routinely dump into the environment via pesticides and poultry fertilizer, and regular exposure to it can cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer. It’s also the kind that rice sops up while it’s growing in flooded fields.
Back in 2012, Consumer Reports tested a great number of rice and rice-containing products for inorganic arsenic. All types of rice (except sushi and quick cooking) from Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic, while rice from California had 38% less inorganic arsenic than rice from other parts of the country.
Similarly, white basmati rice from India and Pakistan had less than half the inorganic arsenic of most other types. But here’s where brown rice gets a trouncing: The researchers found that brown rice had 80% more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type.
My Recommendation: Avoid brown rice in general. If you need some more fiber, eat a sprig of asparagus. Swallow some Metamucil. Personally, I’ve taken to using quinoa in a lot of dishes that normally call for rice.
If you insist on using brown rice (or even white), at least rinse every cup of rice with about 6 cups of water before you prepare it. If you really want to nail it, though, “parboil” your rice. This method involves the following steps:
- Put 4 cups of water in a pot for every cup of raw rice you’re preparing and bring it to a boil.
- Add the rice and boil for 5 minutes.
- Chuck the arsenic-laden water.
- Add fresh water (2 cups for every cup of raw rice).
- Cook the rice under medium heat with a lid until all the water is absorbed.
This method will remove about 73 percent of the inorganic arsenic in the rice (Menon, et al., 2020) while retaining most of its minerals.
6. Canned Tuna
Tuna, in general, are big mo-fo fish, often weighing in between 100 and 2,000 pounds, depending on the variety. Since they’re so big and eat so much and are near the top of the food chain, they accrue a lot of the chemicals ingested by smaller fish.
The chemical we’re more concerned about is mercury, though. A large tuna often contains concentrations of mercury that are a million times higher than the waters it swims in. As you likely know, mercury is a neurotoxin, and when levels reach the tipping point in your brain, neurons in the cerebellum and cerebral cortex start to belly up and die.
My Recommendation: Ditch canned white or albacore tuna completely and choose skipjack tuna instead. The little guys don’t grow much bigger than 40 pounds, so the amount of mercury they contain is far less (about 3 times less than albacore) than that of their bigger cousins. Still, you probably shouldn’t eat a can more than 3 times a month.
Another alternative is to switch to canned salmon or canned sardines.
So, Every Other Food is Safe?
In truth, there are very few “safe” foods to be found, with the possible exception of the potatoes grown by Matt Damon on Mars. Nearly every soil or water sample in the U.S. is tainted with the residue of some chemical that is, in all probability, not healthful. It might be a pesticide. It might be a petroleum product or estrogen mimicker of one type or another. Or it might be fertilizers, radon, lead, creosote, or chromated copper arsenate. Hell, it might be strontium 90 left over from above-ground nuclear testing. Choose your poison.
Likewise, water might easily be contaminated by the same substances found in soil, in addition to several other chemicals or elements, some of which might be unhealthy in sufficient quantities. Hell, you could make your own version of the song, “The Elements,” made famous by Gayle in “Better Call Saul”:
There’s aluminum, ammonia, arsenic, barium,
And cadmium and chloramine and chromium and copper
And fluoride, lead, nitrates, lead
And mercury, radium, selenium, uranium…
Granted, minuscule amounts of nearly any chemical or element shouldn’t be a problem, but the situation goes south when the chemicals start to accumulate.
The diet of the typical American delivers 66 hits of these persistent organic pollutants (POPs) every day. A traditional Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner typically delivers around 38 hits. Bon Appetit, you poor, polluted bastards.
And then, good lord, are the plastics, plastics in the ocean, in the soil, in the air, each of us in the developed world probably ingesting enough every week to make a credit card, one whose balance can likely never be paid off.
It should be clear now that we can’t win. We can, however, try to mitigate the potential damage by taking a few precautions. Firstly, we can simply avoid some of the worst offenders listed above.
Secondly, we can practice diversification of our diets. Don’t get “addicted” to any one type of food, which might lead to the build-up of certain chemicals. Next, wash your fruits and vegetables, but also peel root vegetables (the chemicals concentrate in the skins).
Avoiding fast foods or take-out foods is also a good idea, as is limiting your exposure to plastics in general. Ditch the plastic-coated pans, ditch plastic serving spoons and utensils, and store your food in glass containers instead of plastic ones.
Most of all, think about what you’re throwing down your gullet.
- PFAS in the U.S. Population. ATSDR. December 22, 2022.
- Erickson BE. PFAS chemical found in chocolate cake. Chemical and Engineering News. June 7, 2019.
- Barbo N et al. Locally caught freshwater fish across the United States are likely a significant source of exposure to PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds. Environmental Research. 2023 Mar 1;220;115165.
- EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Environmental Working Group.
- Galligan T. Raisins: No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen list? Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Environmental Working Group. March 25, 2020.
- Mie A et al. Human Health Implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017 Oct 27;16(1):111. PubMed.
- Yang T et al. Effectiveness of Commercial and Homemade Washing Agents in Removing Pesticide Residues on and in Apples. J Agric Food Chem. 2017 Nov 8;65(44):9744-9752. PubMed.
- Schafer KS et al. Persistent toxic chemicals in the US Food Supply. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002 Nov;56(11):813-7. PubMed.
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