By Dr. Joseph Mercola
Research has shown that pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are neurotoxins and can cause disruptions to your neurological system and your brain. The reason why neurotoxins still enjoy widespread use on our fresh food supply is really more about the bottom line for farming operations than it is about the science of human health.
The Environmental Protection Agency considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides, and 30 percent of insecticides to be carcinogenic. All of these toxins are permitted on conventional farms, and any number of them can end up on your plate when you purchase conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables.
The increased use of genetically engineered Bt hybrid plants and soil insecticides also increases the chemical load in food—particularly processed foods.
These man-made neurotoxic chemicals can bioaccumulate in your body, as they resist breaking down in water and also accumulate and store in fat, where they can remain for long periods of time.
In short, this means your body has a very hard time getting rid of them once they enter your body. The answer, of course, is to limit your exposure as much as possible, giving your body a chance to eliminate the toxins you do inadvertently ingest. One food that can help with detoxification is fermented foods.
Updated Shopper’s Guide To Pesticides In Produce
Your best bet is to buy only organic fruits and vegetables, as synthetic agricultural chemicals are not permissible under the USDA organic rules. That said, not all conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are subjected to the same amount of pesticide load.
And with food prices rising, many are looking for ways to buy the healthiest foods possible at the lowest cost.
One such way would be to focus on purchasing certain organic items, while “settling” for others that are conventionally grown. To do this, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the Environmental Working Group’s annual Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Of the 48 different fruit and vegetable categories tested by the EWG for the 2013 guide, the following 15 fruits and vegetables had the highest pesticide load, making them the most important to buy or grow organically:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Sweet bell peppers
- Collard greens
- Summer squash
In contrast, the following foods were found to have the lowest residual pesticide load, making them the safest bet among conventionally grown vegetables. Note that a small amount of sweet corn and most Hawaiian papaya, although low in pesticides, are genetically engineered. If you’re unsure of whether the sweet corn or papaya is GE, I would recommend opting for organic varieties:
- Sweet corn (non-GMO)
- Papayas (non-GMO. Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO)
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet potatoes
What To Look Out For In The Meat Aisle
Many people are still in the dark about the vast differences between concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and organically raised, grass-fed or pastured meats, both in terms of contamination and nutrient content. It’s important to understand that when you raise animals in a CAFO—away from the animals’ natural environments and diets—you dramatically increase the risk of pathogenic contamination that can make you ill.
Take beef, for example. Most CAFO cows are fed grains (typically genetically engineered grains, which make matters even worse), when their natural diet is plain grass. Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, which E. coli bacteria need to survive. Meanwhile, E. coli contamination is actually quite rare in organic beef for this reason—the cows just aren’t susceptible to those kinds of disease-causing bacteria and viruses when they eat what they were designed to eat.
Also beware that bacterial contamination of meat-glued steak—a cost-saving scam that is far more common than you might think—is hundreds of times higher than a solid piece of steak; therefore, if you cook your steak rare, which is ordinarily the most healthful way to cook your meat, you’re at a much greater risk of contracting food poisoning.
You would think that since the meat is being raised in ways that are known to encourage disease-causing organisms, there would be stringent requirements on testing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For example, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test their ingredients for E.coli prior to selling them. And most retailers do not test either. In August 2008, the USDA issued a guideline urging meat processors to test their ingredients before grinding. But the guideline is only optional and has been met with criticism and resistance from the meat industry.
Want Safer Meat? Buy Organic Pastured/Grass-Fed
It’s no surprise then to discover that pathogenic contamination of meat products is quite high. What’s worse, the routine use of low-dose antibiotics in CAFOs has led to a dramatic and rapidly rising presence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
According to a recent NPR report, data published by a joint government program4 from tests conducted on supermarket meat samples collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, reveals the presence of several disease-causing bacteria, including the super-hardy antibiotic-resistant versions of salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli. After analyzing the data, the Environmental Working Group highlighted some of the startling implications in its own report, aptly named “Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets.” The EWG points out that many of the meats tested contained “startlingly high levels” of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on:
- 81 percent of ground turkey
- 69 percent of pork chops
- 55 percent of ground beef
- 39 percent of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs
One of the best ways to avoid contaminated meat is to avoid meat from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations, a.k.a. “factory farms,” and buying organic, pastured or grass-fed meats instead. Growth promoters such as antibiotics are not permitted in organic animal farming, and organically raised animals are also healthier as a result of being pastured, so overall you’re getting far “cleaner,” healthier meat.
“To be safe, consumers should treat all meat as if it may be contaminated, mainly by cooking thoroughly and using safe shopping and kitchen practices (see EWG’s downloadable Tips to Avoiding Superbugs in Meat),” EWG suggests.
Beware Of Pesticides In Chinese Imports
Another related study warns about the pesticide load found in produce imported from China. The analysis was done by Food Sentry, an American food inspection analyst. After analyzing close to 1,000 reported food violations spanning 73 countries, China was identified as having the most violations. A second study focused on the Chinese violations only, over a 15-month period. As reported by Food Navigator, pesticides were the No. 1 complaint. Thirty-two pesticides were identified in Chinese fresh produce and spices, in excess of the permissible amounts. Chinese seafood was also found to be high in antibiotics and other drugs. Other chemicals found in levels exceeding allowable amounts in food included:
- Sulfur dioxide
- Coloring dyes
- Sodium saccharine
The most concerning chemical was sodium hydroxide, a.k.a. caustic soda or lye, found in dairy. Excessive lead levels were also found in kelp and cardamom, and infant formula was found to contain excessive levels of mercury. According to Food Navigator:
“The study also found that economically motivated adulteration—the intentional adulteration of a food for economic gain—continues to be an issue in China. Examples of this included counterfeit eggs that were man-made from various substances and chemicals, synthetic shark fin, synthetic abalone and counterfeit peanut oil made from other oils.”
USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy
While all manner of food fraud and contamination issues continue to rise, the White House administration is about to dramatically scale back the USDA’s oversight of chicken and turkey slaughterhouses. As reported by Mother Jones:
“Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster…
[O]n April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized ‘very soon,’ declaring that the plan ‘will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well.'”
The USDA is expected to save $90 million over three years by reducing the number of inspectors. But these savings are dwarfed by the savings to be made by the poultry industry—dominated by Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Purdue, and Sanderson—which stands to save nearly $257 million annually.
Illogically enough, the USDA claims this plan will actually improve poultry product safety and prevent anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 foodborne illnesses per year. How could that be, you may wonder. The answer lies in new rules that would permit poultry producers to put all the poultry through an antimicrobial wash, using chlorine and other chemicals. The lone USDA inspector will continue what has been done in the past, which is to visually inspect the birds for obvious surface defects and fecal contamination.
Needless to say, I cannot recommend eating anything that has been washed in chlorine and antimicrobial chemicals. We already have a problem with antibiotics causing antibiotic-resistant pathogens when used in the animals’ feed. I cannot foresee the situation getting anything but worse by dousing each bird in antimicrobials on the outside as well.
Healthy Shopping Guidelines
Buying your food from a local organic source is the ideal way to ensure that it’s both fresh and high-quality. I strongly advise you to avoid wilted vegetables of any kind, because when vegetables wilt, they lose much of their nutritional value. In fact, wilted organic vegetables may actually be less healthful than fresh conventionally farmed vegetables.
For tips on cleaning your fruits and veggies, please see my previous article: “7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits, Vegetables.” Regardless of where you shop, the following tips and guidelines can teach you the tricks of healthy shopping, whether you’re shopping at Whole Foods or a regular grocery chain:
Learn to identify:
High-quality food — Whether you’re shopping at a supermarket or a farmer’s market, here are the signs of a high-quality, healthy food:
- Grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers (organic foods fit this description, but so do some non-organic foods)
- Not genetically modified
- Contains no added growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs
- Does not contain any artificial ingredients, including chemical preservatives
- Fresh (keep in mind that if you have to choose between wilted organic produce or fresh conventional produce, the latter may be the better option)
- Did not come from a confined animal feeding operation
- Grown with the laws of nature in mind (meaning animals are fed their native diets, not a mix of grains and animal byproducts, and have free access to the outdoors)
- Grown in a sustainable way (using minimal amounts of water, protecting the soil from burnout, and turning animal wastes into natural fertilizers instead of environmental pollutants)
Organics — There are a few different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal. It’s the best way to ensure you’re getting what you pay for when shopping organic.
The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. (For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.)
Genetically modified foods — Avoiding genetically engineered food is just as important for your health as seeking out high-quality organics. In fact, they go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, GE ingredients are everywhere, so whenever you use pre-made, pre-packaged, processed foods of any kind, genetically modified organisms becomes an issue. The ResponsibleTechnology.org has created a Non-GMO Shopping Guide, available for free at NonGMOShoppingGuide.com. By making sure to avoid all GM food products, you will actively help change not just your own health for the better, but the entire food industry.
Other health-harming ingredients — This is quite a bit trickier, since there are a vast number of additives, preservatives and food colorings that can wreak havoc with your health in the long term. However, I would suggest starting with the most obvious culprits, including MSG, artificial sweeteners, and fructose. Here are helpful guidelines for each:
- MSG: A great resource on how to find hidden sources of MSG, please see the website MSGMYTH.com for detailed listings
- Fructose: Any time you see “corn syrup” or any variation thereof, on the label, avoid it, especially if it’s at the top of the list of ingredients.
- In his book The Sugar Fix, Dr. Richard Johnson reviews the effectiveness of reducing fructose intake to help prevent or treat obesity. His book also provides detailed tables showing the content of fructose in different foods, including whole foods, like fruits – an information base that isn’t readily available elsewhere.
All artificial sweeteners should be avoided, including:
- Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, Canderel, and AminoSweet)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin)
To optimize your diet you need to educate yourself on what “healthy food” really is. It’s the only way to ensure you won’t keep falling for harmful processed food fads like no- or low-fat (which usually means it’s loaded with harmful fructose or sugar instead), or no or low sugar diet foods (which instead contain artificial sweeteners, which are even worse for you). There are few, if any, shortcuts to real health and it all starts with what you feed your body, so make educated choices.
Lastly, for tips on how to prolong the shelf life of fresh produce, see my previous article “Where Do You Store Produce In Your Fridge For Maximum Shelf Life?”
Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine. He has written two New York Times bestsellers and shared his expertise on ABC News, NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and in TIME and Forbes magazines. Photo by Alex Segre/Flickr.