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Poisonous nightshades, for example, including potatoes and tomatoes were farmed to be bigger and sweeter, with less of the lethal chemical solanine and tomatine. Tomatoes were small like berries, the sweetest fruit was only as sweet as a carrot, and broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are all versions of the same plant.
Many of the common foods we eat today carry small amounts of toxins and poisons that, in some cases, we have adapted to eat and even thrive on.
In this article, I want to bring our attention to the overwhelming number of food toxins and poisons that are simply impossible to avoid. Many of today’s superfoods are loaded with toxins that, interestingly, have beneficial properties as well.
The Benefits of Phytates
Phytates or phytic acids are implicated in many food intolerances to wheat, nuts and grains. Phytates are anti-nutrients that help to block bacterial enzymes from gobbling up the grain while the grain or seed lies dormant, awaiting germination in the spring. The concerns around phytates are that they block the absorption of minerals like iron, calcium and phosphorus and zinc.
One study compared a high-phytate diet (which included grains) with a low-phytate diet. After 8 weeks, the high-phytate group saw a 41% increase in the bio-availability of iron in their blood, suggesting that the body may be adapted to digesting foods containing more phytates rather than less. (3) While some say a high-phytic acid diet is linked to osteoporosis, there are studies that show that a high-phytate diet will increase bone density.
While public opinion mounts against foods that contain phytic acids, numerous studies list profound benefits of a well-rounded diet that includes phytic acid-rich foods, showing that they may help:
- Lower cholesterol and triglycerides (4)
- Reduce the risk of calcium kidney stones (4)
- Have anti-colon cancer properties (4)
- Double the production of butyric acid in the gut – a short chain fatty acid linked to overall gut health, the microbiome and immunity (5)
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
When we look at a plant as a palate of individual chemicals, instead of looking at the plant as a whole, we will almost always misinterpret the value and intelligence of the plant. Plant chemistry is complex, and there is usually a reason for every chemical and even every toxin in that plant. As we will see, there are toxins and poisons in just about every food we eat today. If we only analyze one chemical or toxin in a vegetable that may cause a concern in one part of the body, we may easily miss the beneficial effects of that same toxin in another part of the body. Often, the benefits outweigh the concerns – as we saw with the phytic acids.
Instead of taking more and more foods out of our diet – which we have done with wheat, grains, nuts and seeds – because of just one or two of its chemical constituents, we should consider the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Common Foods Toxins and Poisons (See food toxins in bold)
While selenium, at the right dose, is a powerful antioxidant, at too high of a dose it is a nerve toxin that can cause loss of hair and nails, fatigue, diarrhea and neuropathies. (1) Brazil nuts carry the highest concentration of selenium, so be careful with gobbling these – as little as 4 dozen of these could cause toxicity.
Mercury is a toxicant that has laced our water supplies – mostly from the coal-fired industrial plant plumes that spread wide and far across the country. Eating fish, once one of the healthiest foods on the planet, has to be approached with caution these days. Bonito, halibut, mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, and Bluefin tuna are the fish commonly found to exceed the FDA mercury limit of 1 ppm. (1)
Certain foods have been found to contain substances that suppress the function of the thyroid gland by interfering with the uptake of iodine, an essential nutrient that supports growth, cognition and hormonal balance. Eating these foods raw and in excess can suppress thyroid function: spinach, cassava, peanuts, soybeans, strawberries, sweet potatoes, peaches, pears, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, canola, cauliflower, mustard greens, radishes.
Furocoumarins are a family of natural food constituents with phototoxic and photomutagenic properties that can cause DNA damage and dermatitis when excessive ingestion is combined with sunlight. Fourcoumarins are found in citrus fruits such as lime, grapefruit, orange, lemon and bergamot, as well as celery, carrots and parsnips. More than 10mg of furocourmarins can cause dermatitis, and dietary portions can bring 2-8mg per meal suggestion. These foods are safe, but not by much. (1)
Amylase inhibitors are naturally-occurring inhibitors of Alpha-amylase (or α-amylase) found in wheat, rye, and white and red kidney beans. These have been found to slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream as well as protect the seed from insect infestation. If the salivary amylase is insufficient, foods with amylase inhibitors can cause allergic reactions such as: sneezing, rhinorrhea, oropharyngeal itching, hoarseness, cough and dyspnea. (1) Baking wheat into bread reduces the amylase inhibitors by 80-100% depending on the type of grain. (1)
Interestingly, the amylase enzyme is produced in higher quantities in the fall and winter, when wheat and beans are harvested (8), and any gluten that remains undigested in the small intestines will be broken down in the large intestines where its supports numerous beneficial gut microbes. (6,7)
Lectins are a group of glycoproteins that are present in high levels in legumes, beans, soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans and lentils, nuts, seeds and all grains. (1) Lectins also can bind avidly to mucosal cells and interfere with nutrient absorption from the intestine, and it has been hypothesized that lectins may also produce toxicity by facilitating bacterial growth in the GI tract.
While there are numerous claims labeling wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) and other lectins as toxic, inflammatory, neurotoxins, cancer-causing and a reason to avoid all grains, some studies are beginning to change our understanding.
For example, one study demonstrated that WGA has potentially beneficial effects on the immune cells of the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, these researchers even suggested that WGA should be studied for its potential anti-tumor properties. (9)
Boiling beans for at least ten minutes has been shown to reduce lectins by 200-fold. As cooking temperatures under 176°F does not destroy lectin, slow cooking and/or crock-pot cooking is not advised when cooking beans. (1)
Thiaminases destroy vitamin B-1 in the body. They are naturally-occurring enzymes found in fish, crab, clams and in some fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, black currants, red beets, Brussels sprouts and red cabbage. In humans, thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency may lead to weakness and weight loss. Severe thiamine deficiency produces “beri-beri,” a disease characterized by anorexia, cardiac enlargement, and muscular weakness leading to ataxia. Cooking destroys thiaminases in fish and other sources. (1)
Oxalates are found in rhubarb, tea, spinach, parsley, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, lettuce, celery, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, peas, coffee, cocoa, beans, potatoes, berries, turmeric and carrots.
Oxalates can bind to calcium and other minerals, making them insoluble and decreasing their bioavailability. Ingestion of foods containing high concentrations of oxalates may cause decreased bone growth, kidney stones, renal toxicity, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma and impaired blood clotting. The significant role oxalate plays in kidney stone development is exemplified by the fact that approximately 65% of kidney stones consist of calcium oxalate. (1)
Clearly, there are an overwhelming number of naturally-occurring toxins in the foods we eat. If we investigated the toxins in these foods with the same vigor we have investigated the constituents in wheat and other grains, we would find numerous reasons not to eat many of the foods we now consider health foods.
Wheat is a major player in the Mediterranean diet, which is still considered one of the world’s healthiest diets with volumes of studies supporting its benefits. Whole wheat is just as well-backed by volumes of studies touting its benefits. >>> Check out my newest book, Eat Wheat, for more on this topic.