Become a poison hunter – It pays off

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – Professor Emeritus, scientist, lecturer and writer. Read more of Stig Bengmark’s columns here.

It feels very unsettling to know that we’re all exposed to several hundred, probably thousands, of chemical substances, and that the health consequences of most of these substances are far from having been investigated or properly understood. As far back as 15 years ago, in 2000, the EU stated in a report that it had very little knowledge of 90% of the chemicals we’re exposed to – and the same applied even if it was limited only to chemicals used in larger quantities (more than 1000 tonnes per year). It’s not really any better today – if anything, just the opposite.

It doesn’t apply to just pesticides – but also everyday toxins

A report from the WHO claims that the negative effects on our health are actually significantly worse than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams. We’re slowly beginning to realise that it’s not just chemical pesticides we need to watch out for, but a wide range of other substances – substances that we may have thought were quite harmless and that we now have to understand are more negative for our health than we previously wanted to accept. This applies, for example, to silicones in implants and colours in tattoos – substances that are put on/in the skin or inside the body. Albeit slowly, very slowly, these leak out and affect our immune system, among other things. Rest assured, the effects are there even if they’re not noticeable, at least not at first. Among other things, we see suspicions in medical literature that silicone from implants leaks and can contribute, among other things, to the onset of the ‘mysterious’ disease, fibromyalgia, but also to autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma (see Bengmark S. Läkartidningen 2012; 9: 485).

Limit values don’t mean much – the toxins work together and reinforce each other

The problem is we place far too much faith in what’s known as limit values – staying below the current limit value gives false security. Different toxins combine their effects and strengthen each other, which creates high inflammatory pressure in the body. Danish researchers – the ones who highlighted the risk of Bisphenol A – have illustrated this with a theoretical example 1 + 1 + 1 = 7.

Be careful with skin creams

At the moment, attention is focused on parabens and phthalates which are found in things like skin creams, soaps, makeup, scented candles, detergents, toothpastes and plastic toys. It’s only in recent years that researchers have begun to show a greater interest in these substances. They play second fiddle in the ‘inflammation orchestra’, but their effects are significant. I’ve read that a woman who puts on a discreet amount of make-up every day exposes her body to about 250 chemicals, and of these, more than 160 substances can be detected the same day in the body – in fact, many of them are circulating in the blood within just a few seconds or minutes – the skin and oral mucosa, among others, are literally that permeable.

In addition to affecting the immune system, they’ve been shown to have particularly disruptive effects on internal secretory/endocrine organs – mainly the thyroid gland, ovaries and testicles. They are believed to contribute to a larger number of diseases in these particular organs and especially to a reduced number of sperm and the risk of infertility.

Pesticides – an insurmountable problem

When all’s said and done, pesticides get the most attention of all environmental toxins. There are several hundred approved pesticides in the EU despite, as the WHO points out, us not knowing enough about their health effects, how long they stay in soil and water, and how long they stay in the human body. We’re exposed to these substances several times a day, especially in connection with meals. It’s impossible to protect yourself against them – they’re found in almost all food and the information about them is nowhere near good enough. The EU should long ago have introduced an obligation to provide information on the content of fruit and vegetables, seeds, peas, beans, and wine.

Is organic food a reality or another smokescreen?

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are a little naive if they think that organic food is not only grown without fertilisers but also without pesticides. Is that actually true? I doubt it. When you dig deeper into the literature, you’ll find, for example, that in organic farming so-called organic pesticides (such as a rotenone-pyrethrin blend) are being used, and when researchers at one of the world’s leading universities – Berkeley University in California – recently compared organic grapes (which are sprayed on average 7-8 times/harvest with an organic rotenone-pyrethrin mixture) with grapes used in traditional wine production (and on average only sprayed with the synthetic agent (Imidan) twice per harvest), the researchers found it very unlikely that the organic mixture with rotenone and pyrethrin would be better for the environment (and health) than Imidan, and this is especially true if we also take into account that this mixture has well-known negative effects on fish in particular, but also other life in our lakes and seas (Source).

Some good news among the darkness

But let’s rejoice in the fact that there are actually a number of fruits and vegetables that have been shown to contain so little pesticides that they don’t even need to be bought as organic. These are: avocados, sweetcorn, pineapples, cabbages, sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, aubergines, grapefruits, cantaloupes, cauliflowers and sweet potatoes. My wife and I have a little cheat sheet in our wallets listing these but also listing ‘the dirty twelve’ – the fruits and vegetables that you should avoid buying if they’re not organic.

The dirty twelve – they are serious

A dozen fruits and vegetables (actually more) contain so many pesticides that they should only be consumed when organic options (if ‘organic’ has some definite added value – personally, I still need to be convinced).

Unfortunately, many of our biggest favourites belong to the ‘dirty twelve’ and many are also known for their large content of important nutrients such as apples (pears are also mentioned but are not in the 12 group), strawberries, grapes (wine), celery, peaches and nectarines, spinach, red and green peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, mange tout, and potatoes. Only buy these if they’re organic! There is the option to completely exclude ‘the dirty twelve’, of course, and look for other, safer fruits and vegetables instead. Maybe a ‘pesticide food’ blockade would be a good response?

The nutritionists’ contribution

Nutritionists have tried to come up with a list of fruits and vegetables that can replace “the dirty twelve”.

Among our absolute favourites are celery, peppers, spinach and kale – we absolutely do not want to go without them, so we make an exception for these and buy organic. Both spinach and kale preserve their nutritional content very well when frozen, and for convenience we want access to frozen, organically grown vegetables. But the industry doesn’t seem to have got the memo – how often do we find organic vegetables in the freezer sections?

We’re pleased that broccoli is also approved regarding pesticides – for us, it’ll be more broccoli in the future instead of kale, for example – and we’re happy that the green list highlights parsley (should be eaten as a salad, not just sprinkled as a decoration on food), thyme and chard (which my dad used to call ‘poor man’s asparagus’). Amongst the good news is also the fact that cantaloupe melons are mentioned so many times – it’s the only melon variety that we eat regularly because, unlike other melon varieties and especially watermelon, it contains significantly less fructose (it’s on a par with raspberries and much lower than apples and pears, for example).

However, Swedish fruit and vegetable sections don’t really seem to be on the same page. On the one hand, they’re not always so fresh (logistics are too slow) if you compare with Great Britain and the USA, for example, and the range is nowhere near as extensive as you see in other countries. Is it partly our fault as consumers? Maybe we’re just eating out of habit and neglecting to try new vegetables if they appear – vegetables that people have enjoyed in Asia, Africa and South America for millennia? Maybe it’s time for us to sharpen up? Finally, fresh turmeric has appeared in the grocery stores – now sorghum and many more are waiting in the wings.

What is there to gain?

A number of diseases have been particularly associated with pesticides and other chemicals, and by systematically avoiding exposure to these, we can, in combination with an otherwise healthy lifestyle, hopefully avoid diseases such as:

  • Cancer (especially breast cancer, endometriosis, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid cancer)
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Premature puberty (menstruation and early breast development in young girls)
  • Infertility (both male and female)
  • Low birth weight, failed pregnancies and birth defects
  • Neurological diseases (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease – the toxins rotenone and paraquat have been shown in animal experiments to destroy important so-called dopaminergic brain cells – which are important for keeping Parkinson’s disease at bay)
  • Thyroid problems (goiter and cancer)

So, aim to be a poison hunter – it’s worth it!

More from Prof. Bengmark