What are the sentiments in the scientific community regarding the risk of trace amounts of toxins, carcinogens and heavy elements in food in the US? Is it a legitimate concern or just fear-based media coverage? Is "going organic" a smart health choice or is it just for ecological and moral benefits?
Recent news reports have raised public concern regarding the presence of trace amounts of heavy metals, carcinogens, pesticides and other toxic substances in food. Due to the natural occurrence of many agents such as lead, mercury and arsenic in our environment, soil, and water these substances and many others are present in food regardless of its source. Additionally, the increasing industrialization of our world can also contribute to contamination of our food sources with many synthetic chemical agents. It can be difficult for the consumer to evaluate the safety of the foods they are ingesting.
There are several governmental agencies in the United States tasked with monitoring, reporting, and enforcing regulations regarding acceptable levels of biologic, chemical, and radiological contaminants in food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the primary agency responsible for food monitoring in the U.S. The FDA conducts and reviews research regarding disease risk after acute and chronic exposure to thousands of elements, pesticides, chemicals and other contaminants in human food sources. Based on the most current data available, the FDA establishes and enforces “action levels” for poisonous or deleterious substances in human food sources. Action levels are limits at or above which FDA will take legal action to remove products from the market. Action levels are necessary due to the unavoidability of low-level contamination of foods due to the ubiquitous nature of naturally occurring elements, biological agents, and man-made chemicals in food.
The Total Diet Study, an ongoing FDA program since 1961, monitors the levels of contaminants and nutrients in foods. This data is then used to estimate average individual exposure to these contaminants over the course of a year. This data is used to assist in evaluation of potential for disease due to chronic exposure.
With the public’s concern over the safety of low-level contamination of traditional food sources with naturally occurring and man-made chemicals, organic food-based diets have become increasingly popular. Organic food is grown using practices that promote biodiversity and do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic food has been touted to be safer and healthier than traditionally grown food. However, there is limited scientific evidence to date to support or reject these claims. A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 reviewed 240 studies on organic food and their levels of contaminants and health benefits. None of these studies were able to detect health benefits in subjects eating an organic diet, nor detect any biologic markers to support increased health due to exposure to an organic diet. While individuals consuming an organic diet were likely to have lower levels of exposure to pesticides, no significant difference in overall pesticide exposure was found, nor were any improved health outcomes able to be found in those consuming organic food.
Given the complex environment we live in, it is difficult to predict the long-term health effects of low-level contaminants in our food sources. All food, regardless of source is susceptible to contamination by potentially toxic substances due to their ubiquitous presence in our world. Ongoing studies by the FDA and other agencies continue to produce data that will be used to further modify acceptable levels of these substances in our food. While organic food may slightly lower the exposure of an individual to a few of these contaminants, there is insufficient evidence at this time to prove there is a health benefit from consuming organic foods alone. The medical community continues to urge individuals to eat a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise and eliminate high-risk behaviors such as smoking to improve their health and lower their risk of disease.
References and Further Information:
1. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157:348-366. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007