The Food Safety Risk of Organic versus Conventional

The Food Safety Risk of Organic versus Conventional.jpeg

The stated principles of organic agriculture are "health, ecology, fairness, and care," but if you ask people why they buy organic, the strongest predictor is concern for their own health. People appear to spend more for organic foods for selfish reasons, rather than altruistic motives. Although organic foods may not have more nutrients per dollar (see my video Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?), consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Food safety-wise, researchers found no difference in the risk for contamination with food poisoning bacteria in general. Both organic and conventional animal products have been found to be commonly contaminated with Salmonella and Campylobacter, for example. Most chicken samples (organic and inorganic), were found to be contaminated with Campylobacter, and about a third with Salmonella, but the risk of exposure to multidrug-resistant bacteria was lower with the organic meat. They both may carry the same risk of making us sick, but food poisoning from organic meat may be easier for doctors to treat.

What about the pesticides? There is a large body of evidence on the relation between exposure to pesticides and elevated rate of chronic diseases such as different types of cancers, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and ALS, as well as birth defects and reproductive disorders--but these studies were largely on people who live or work around pesticides.

Take Salinas Valley California, for example, where they spray a half million pounds of the stuff. Daring to be pregnant in an agricultural community like that may impair childhood brain development, such that pregnant women with the highest levels running through their bodies (as measured in their urine) gave birth to children with an average deficit of about seven IQ points. Twenty-six out of 27 studies showed negative effects of pesticides on brain development in children. These included attention problems, developmental disorders, and short-term memory difficulties.

Even in urban areas, if you compare kids born with higher levels of a common insecticide in their umbilical cord blood, those who were exposed to higher levels are born with brain anomalies. And these were city kids, so presumably this was from residential pesticide use.

Using insecticides inside your house may also be a contributing risk factor for childhood leukemia. Pregnant farmworkers may be doubling the odds of their child getting leukemia and increase their risk of getting a brain tumor. This has lead to authorities advocating that awareness of the potentially negative health outcome for children be increased among populations occupationally exposed to pesticides, though I don't imagine most farmworkers have much of a choice.

Conventional produce may be bad for the pregnant women who pick them, but what about our own family when we eat them?

Just because we spray pesticides on our food in the fields doesn't necessarily mean it ends up in our bodies when we eat it, or at least we didn't know that until a study was published in 2006. Researchers measured the levels of two pesticides running through children's bodies by measuring specific pesticide breakdown products in their urine. In my video, Are Organic Foods Safer?, you can see the levels of pesticides flowing through the bodies of three to 11-year olds during a few days on a conventional diet. The kids then went on an organic diet for five days and then back to the conventional diet. As you can see, eating organic provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to pesticides commonly used in agricultural production. The study was subsequently extended. It's clear by looking at the subsequent graph in the video when the kids were eating organic versus conventional. What about adults, though? We didn't know... until now.

Thirteen men and women consumed a diet of at least 80% organic or conventional food for seven days and then switched. No surprise, during the mostly organic week, pesticide exposure was significantly reduced by a nearly 90% drop.

If it can be concluded that consumption of organic foods provides protection against pesticides, does that also mean protection against disease? We don't know. The studies just haven't been done. Nevertheless, in the meantime, the consumption of organic food provides a logical precautionary approach.

For more on organic foods:

For more on the infectious disease implications of organic versus conventional, see Superbugs in Conventional vs. Organic Chicken. Organic produce may be safer too. See Norovirus Food Poisoning from Pesticides. Organic eggs may also have lower Salmonella risk, which is an egg-borne epidemic every year in the US. See my video Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe?

More on Parkinson's and pesticides in Preventing Parkinson's Disease With Diet.

Those surprised by the California data might have missed my video California Children Are Contaminated.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: IFPRI -IMAGES / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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Chronic Headaches and Pork Parasites

NF-Aug26 Chronic Headaches and Pork Parasite.jpg

Neurocysticercosis is the sciencey name for an infection of the human central nervous system by pork tapeworm larvae. The invasion of baby pork tapeworms in the brain "has become an increasingly important emerging infection in the United States," and is the #1 cause of epilepsy in the world. It is the most common parasitic disease of the human brain and used to be found throughout only the developing world (with the exception of Muslim countries, since less pork is consumed there). That all changed about 30 years ago, and now it's increasingly found throughout North America.

Besides seizures, the pork parasites may actually trigger brain tumors or cause an aneurism or psychiatric manifestation like depression. It can also result in dementia, but with deworming drugs this is often reversible. Only rarely do surgeons have to surgically remove the larvae.

I've talked about pork tapeworms before (see my videos Pork Tapeworms on the Brain, Avoiding Epilepsy Through Diet, and Not So Delusional Parasitosis). What's new is that we now know that they may present as chronic headaches--either migraines or so-called "tension-headaches"--even when the worms in our head are dead. What researchers think is happening is that as our body tries to chip away at the worms' calcified bodies, bits of them may be released into the rest of our brain causing inflammation that could be contributing to headaches.

This condition is rare even in endemic areas, but we can avoid getting infested with an adult tapeworm in the first place by cooking pork thoroughly. It's found in some parts of pig carcasses more than others (see the meat chart here), and the worms can be frozen to death no matter how infested the muscles are by storing pork (cut up into small pieces) for a month at subzero temperatures. Then to ensure the larvae are dead the meat is recommended to be cooked for more than two hours. That's one well-done pork chop!

The New England Journal of Medicine recently featured a case of some guy who must have had thousands of pork tapeworm larvae wriggling through his muscles. In my video, Chronic Headaches and Pork Tapeworms, you can see an x-ray, showing the thousands of little white streaks in this man's body. Each white streak is a baby tapeworm. That's why you can get infected by pork, it gets in the muscles. So cannibals might want to cook for two hours too.

Not all parasites are associated with meat, though. An anxious but healthy 32-year-old male physician presented to the family medicine clinic with a sample of suspected parasites from his stools, which had been retrieved from the toilet that same day. They looked to be about an inch long. He had previously traveled to India, had Chinese food the night before--who knows what he had. Maybe it was hookworms? The sample was sent to the microbiology laboratory for analysis. Later that day, the microbiology physician called to report positive identification of Vigna radiata (previously known as Phaseolus aureus) in the stool sample. Or in common parlance, a bean sprout. They were bean sprouts!

"The patient was called and gently but firmly informed of the diagnosis. Given the nature of the identified specimen, the information was presented in a non-judgmental, respectful manner so as not to offend the sensibilities or sensitivities of the patient."

Their parting advice to fellow physicians in cases of this nature was as follows: "as comical as the findings might seem--try not to laugh!"

Other parasites in meat include toxoplasma (Brain Parasites in Meat), sarcosystis (USDA Parasite Game), and Anisakis (Allergenic Fish Worms). There can even be critters in some dairy products (Cheese Mites and Maggots). Eating Outside Our Kingdom describes a brain malady caused not by meat parasites, but by meat proteins themselves.

One of the nice things about eating plant-based is that plant parasites, like aphids, don't affect people. When is the last time you heard of someone coming down with a bad case of Dutch elm disease?

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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Food Dyes and ADHD









Food Dyes and ADHD

There are currently thousands of additives in our food supply. Some are good—like supplementing foods with vitamin B12, for example (See Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health). Other additives involve weighing the risks and benefits. Take nitrites in processed meats. Yes, they may increase our risk of cancer but, as preservatives, they decrease our risk of dying from botulism (See When Nitrates Go Bad and Bacon and Botulism). Then there are additives used for purely cosmetic purposes, like food dyes, used to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. According to the FDA, “Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” Heavens forbid! Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.

Because we’re eating a lot more processed foods, we’re now getting five times more food dyes in our daily diet than we were 50 years ago. Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are used every year in foods, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States.

I always wondered why they called them, for example, Blue #1 instead of their actual chemical name in the list of ingredients. Then, after reading this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I realized why. Picture a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It has Yellow #5. Would people be as likely to buy this product if instead of Yellow #5 it listed Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-(pyrazolone-3-carboxylate) on the label?

The list of food dyes used to be longer (See Artificial Food Colors and ADHD), but different dyes kept getting banned—including Violet #1, which, ironically, was the color used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection stamp, so they may have been actually further cancer-ing up the meat.

Years ago I featured a landmark study in my video Are Artificial Colors Bad for You?, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world. It showed that artificial colors increased "inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children." So what happened? Well, the British government said, OK, there’re no health benefits to these dyes, only health risks, so it’s a no-brainer. They mandated that food manufacturers remove most of the artificial food colors from products. In fact, the whole European Union said that if manufacturers want to keep using the dyes, then they have to put a warning label stating: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S. where similar regulations are not currently in place. Why did the U.S. government take steps to get rid of them as well?

The FDA put together a committee that looked at the landmark study and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior, but the “type of treatment effects reported in the study, even though the investigators referred to increases in levels of ‘hyperactivity,’ were not the disruptive excessive hyperactivity behaviors of ADHD but more likely the type of over-activity exhibited occasionally by the general population of preschool and school age children.” A distinguished toxicologist basically responded, “look, low level lead exposure may only shave off a few IQ points off of kids, but just because they’d still fall within a normal range, doesn’t mean it’s OK to expose it to our kids.” And looking back now, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer and possibly even urban violence—the aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to closely follow the lead levels in the air.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to call on the FDA to ban food dyes and for food companies to voluntarily stop using them. Good luck with that. In the meantime, some researchers recently suggested a way to see which food colors may be damaging our child’s brain, advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dyes at the grocery store. Then have their kid do some homework or something and then have them chug down an artificial color and see if it affects their handwriting/reading/math at 30 minutes, at 90 minutes, and 3 hours. They also see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping, and so on. If that’s OK, they say you should try even more to see if more will mess with their mind. If I may offer an alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn’t buy our kids processed junk in the first place.

This whole saga reminds me of the artificial flavor in my video Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. It’s amazing what the food industry is able to get away with. There’s even sometimes Artificial Coloring in Fish.

There is a campaign to get Kraft to remove yellow #5 from their mac & cheese, but even if the stuff didn’t glow in the dark it’s still just a blob of sodium (750 mg), saturated fat (4.5 g), and trans fat (2.8 g). The food movement might better spend its time encouraging healthier fare altogether.

How can we get our kids to eat less processed junk? I review some practical tips in my videos Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home. 

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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How Risky are CT Scans?









Cancer Risk from CT Scan Radiation

The greatest radiation exposure risk comes not from the Fukushima fallout or the polonium naturally found in all seafood (see my last video, Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood), but from doctors.

This was the study that originally shook things up: “Estimated Risks of Radiation-Induced Fatal Cancer from Pediatric CAT scans.” Researchers concluded that the best available risk estimates suggest that pediatric CAT scans (also known as CT scans) will result in significantly increased lifetime radiation risk. How increased? In the United States, of the approximately 600,000 abdominal and head CT scans annually performed in children under the age of fifteen, 500 of these individuals might ultimately not just get cancer but die from cancer attributable to the CAT scan radiation. In response to this revelation, the editor-in-chief of the leading radiology journal admitted that radiologists have not been watching out for children.

The cancer estimates were based on data from Japanese atomic bomb survivors, in terms of how many deaths one can expect from what kind of radiation dose. However, there’s never been a study able to actually document the excess cancers—until now. It turns out that the X-rays released by CAT scanners may be twice as carcinogenic as the higher energy gamma rays released from atomic bombs. Just a few CT scans may triple the risk of brain tumors and leukemia in children.

Other studies are being performed around the world to quantify the risk and should be out in the next few years. Until then, what can we do? First of all, we should get X-rays only when absolutely necessary. Good evidence suggests that between a fifth and a half of CAT scans aren’t necessary at all—they could be replaced with another type of imaging or not performed at all. That’s a lot of added cancer risk for no added benefit.

If you check out my 4-min video Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation, you can see the risk of developing cancer for different groups after getting one CT scan. The risk of developing cancer after a single CT scan may be as high as 1 in a 100 for a baby girl. It can take years for cancer to develop, though, which is why the risk is lower in the elderly since they have fewer years left to live. The diagnostic medical radiation dealt out in one year is estimated to cause 2,800 breast cancers among women in the United States, and 25,000 other cancers. That’s doctors causing a lot of cancer.

One chest CT scan is like getting 400 chest X-rays, and a stress test heart scan can be like getting over a thousand X-rays. Doctors need to communicate the risks of these procedures, using relatable analogies. For example, the risk of a chest CT is like the risk of having a car crash during 2500 miles of highway driving or of smoking 700 cigarettes. You pick up a pack of cigarettes and there’s a warning label, but then you go in for thallium heart scan, and no one minds telling you that the risk corresponds to smoking 1400 cigarettes. One in every 270 middle-aged women that get an angiogram may get cancer because of that one test.

The risk associated with the thallium heart scans shocked me. By eating healthy, we may not only eliminate the death and disability associated with heart disease and its treatment (such as open heart surgery), but the risks associated with heart disease diagnosis as well. See these videos for my advice on preventing heart disease:

As I explain in my full-length live presentation on preventing, arresting, and reversing the 15 top killers (Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death), adverse drug reactions from prescription drugs are estimated to cause more than 100,000 deaths in the United States every year, making doctors the sixth leading cause of death. And that’s not counting other “iatrogenic” (physician-caused) harm, such as these radiation risks or medication errors or infections acquired in hospitals. My profession needs to do a better job of offering fully informed consent, clearly and comprehensively explaining the risks and benefits of each alternate course of action.

What about getting X-rays at the dentist? I’ve got a video about that too: Do Dental X-Rays Cause Brain Tumors?. And cell phone radiation? See my video Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood









Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood

With prevailing westerly winds over Japan, radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant tragedy was detected throughout North America at levels comparable to those seen 25 years earlier from Chernobyl, the only other category 7 nuclear event in history.

The highest levels of radioactive iodine in rain water were found in Boise, Idaho, and the highest levels in milk were found in San Francisco at levels ten times higher than the federal maximum allowed in drinking water. This is below that which would be expected to pose a direct threat to U.S. public health, but a controversial paper in the International Journal of Health Sciences suggested the radioactive plume from the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima may be responsible for the subsequent bump in U.S. mortality — similar to what we saw after Chernobyl (see my 4-min video Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood for details). However, the authors themselves underscore that their research shows merely a correlation, and potential evidence of a causal link. They stress that more research is necessary.

Of all the radiation released, only a tiny fraction of the fallout reached U.S. shores—most was absorbed by the Pacific Ocean. What does that mean for seafood safety?

Researchers report unequivocal evidence that Pacific Bluefin tuna have transported Fukushima-derived radioactive fallout across the entire North Pacific Ocean. Tuna migrate from Japan to California and appear to have taken some radioactivity with them.

Unfortunately, more than just radiation from nuclear disasters enters our oceans. Our oceans have become humanity’s sewers; everything eventually flows down into the sea. This has implications for other aspects of seafood safety:

Even though there was a 10-fold spike in radioactive cesium levels in tuna, the researchers put it in context by noting that there were baseline levels of radioactivity in fish even before Fukushima, due to everything from thermonuclear weapons tests and sunken nuclear submarines to the radioactive elements found naturally in the earth’s crust.

The levels in seawater of radioactive polonium (the element used in the horrific assassination of Russian dissident Litvinenko) are miniscule, but it strongly bioaccumulates up the food chain into fish. Polonium is a by-product of uranium decay and is frequently cited as one of the reasons that tobacco is so carcinogenic. That was something the tobacco industry was well aware of and could have easily removed, but the process that could have removed the polonium affected the absorbability of nicotine. The loss of the nicotine “kick” sensation was found unacceptable by industry executives. So they kept the polonium in.

Cigarette manufacturers’ protection of stockholders over the public is not unique to that sector. More industry hijinks in:

The radioactive polonium in cigarettes has been speculatively blamed for the link between smoking and male infertility, but most of human exposure comes from diet—mainly fish and shellfish. And this was before Fukushima.

So what happens if we eat seafood? Researchers measured the increase in radioactive polonium levels in semen after a single seafood meal. It caused a 300 percent spike in radioactivity levels. Probably not enough to cause infertility—but that was just one meal. Whether the kind of dose you can get from eating seafood is high enough to damage sperm cells still needs to be established. Researchers calculate that may have to eat as much as a pound of seafood a month before we might realize the harmful effects of the radiation.

More on infertility in:

Interestingly, there’s 8 times more polonium in cooked shrimp than in raw. Researchers think it’s because most of the polonium is in the shrimps’ internal organs, which is released in to the boiling water and contaminates the muscle. Gutting crustaceans before cooking may therefore decrease radiation exposure.

The greatest radiation exposure risk, however, comes not from Fukushima fallout or the polonium naturally found in seafood, but from doctors. See my video, Cancer Risk from CT Scan Radiation. This was touched on in a recent New York Times op ed.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day or sign up for my free daily, weekly, or monthly video updates.

Image credit: Photl

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