The Food Safety Risk of Organic versus Conventional

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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:

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Should Pregnant Women Drink Cow’s Milk?

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Foods of animal origin in general naturally contain hormones, but cow's milk may be of particular concern. The hormones naturally found even in organic cow's milk may have played a role in studies that found a relationship between dairy products and human illnesses, such as acne, certain cancers and male reproductive disorders. Milk consumption has also been associated with an increased risk of early puberty and endometrial cancer in postmenopausal women, but "hormonal levels in food could be particularly dangerous in the case of vulnerable populations, such as young children or pregnant women. To this critical population, even a small hormonal intake could lead to major changes in the metabolism."

If you check out my video Why Do Vegan Women Have 5x Fewer Twins, you can see that children are highly sensitive to sex steroids. Because their levels of sex steroids are very low, even a small variation would account for a major change in the total activity of the involved hormone. Because no lower threshold for estrogenic action has been established, caution should be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure of fetuses and children to exogenous sex steroids, even at very low levels.

In the AMA's Pediatrics Journal, the Chair of Boston Children's Hospital's Obesity Prevention Center along with the chair of Harvard's nutrition department questioned dairy industry recommendations that children should drink three glasses of milk a day. Dairy milk evolved to promote the growth of grazing animals at high risk for predation when small, so they needed to put on a few hundred pounds quickly in the first few months of life.

The consequences of lifetime human exposure to the growth factors in milk have not been well studied. "Milk consumption increases serum concentrations of insulin-like growth factor 1, which is linked to prostate and other cancers. In addition, modern industrial methods maintain dairy cows in active milk production throughout their pregnancies, resulting in a milk supply with high levels of reproductive hormones."

Pregnant cows excrete significantly higher levels of sex steroids into their milk than non-pregnant cows. The subsequent consumption of such dairy products from pregnancy results in additional consumer exposure. And it's not just dairy. Although dairy products are an important source of hormones, other products of animal origin must be considered as well. All edible tissues of animal origin contain estrogen. This may explain why, in a study of over a thousand women eating plant-based diets, vegan women have a twinning rate that is one fifth that of vegetarians and omnivores.

Twin pregnancies are risky pregnancies, with much higher complication rates. Many parents and physicians underestimate the negative consequences of multiple pregnancy, but "women with a multiple pregnancy face greater risks for themselves and their infants." Twin babies may be ten times more likely to die at birth. To avoid these complications, the research team writes, "women attempting conception should avoid milk and dairy products."

Minimizing dairy, our nation's #1 source of saturated fat may be a good idea for dads too: Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility.

What about the endocrine-disrupting xenoestrogens--how do they compare with the natural hormones in our food supply? That was the topic of my video Estrogen in Meat, Dairy, and Eggs.

Then once they're born, best to stick to human milk:

Then as young children, dairy can sometimes cause another problem: Childhood Constipation and Cow's Milk

Here's a selection of other pregnancy-related videos:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Is Monsanto’s Roundup Pesticide Glyphosate Safe?

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GMO soy has been found to be contaminated with pesticide residues (see Are GMOs Safe? The Case of Roundup Ready Soy), but are these levels anything to worry about? I explore this question in my video Is Monsanto's Roundup Pesticide Glyphosate Safe?.

Researchers out of Norway described the amount of pesticide residues found in GMO soy as high compared to the maximum allowable residue levels. The legal limit for glyphosate in foods had been set at 0.1-0.2 mg/kg; so these exceed the legal limits by an average of about 2000%, whereas organic and conventional non-GMO soy both had none.

So what did Monsanto do? Did the industry ditch the whole GMO thing, go back to using less pesticides so that residue levels wouldn't be so high? Or, they could just change the definition of high. What if they could get authorities to raise the maximum residue level from 0.1 or 0.2 up to 20? Then the residue levels won't look so high anymore. And this is exactly what they did. The acceptance level of glyphosate in food and animal feed has been increased by authorities in countries that use Roundup-Ready GM crops. In Brazil, they went up to ten, and the U.S. and Europe now accept up to 20. In all of these cases, the maximum residue level values appear to have been adjusted, not based on new evidence indicating glyphosate toxicity was less than previously understood, but pragmatically in response to actual observed increases in the content of residues in GMO soybeans--otherwise it wouldn't be legal to sell the stuff.

What evidence do we have, though, that these kinds of residues are harmful? For 12 years we've heard that Roundup interferes with embryonic development, but that study was about sea urchin embryos. For 14 years we heard that Roundup may disrupt hormones, but that's in mouse testicles.

Blogs will dish about concerning new studies implicating Roundup in male fertility, but if we look at the study, it's about rat testicles. Some blogs cite studies with disturbing titles like "prepubertal exposure alters testosterone levels and testicular shape," but they're talking about puberty in rats, though that doesn't make as catchy a blog title.

Why not use human tissue? Women are having babies every day--why not just experiment on human placentas, which would otherwise just get thrown away? In 2005, researchers did just that. And despite all the negative effects in rodents, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup didn't seem to have much of a toxic effect on human cells even at high doses, or have much effect on a hormone regulating enzyme, leading Monsanto-funded reviewers to conclude that regardless of what hazards might be alleged based on animal studies, "glyphosate is not anticipated to produce adverse developmental and reproductive effects in humans."

But pure glyphosate isn't sprayed on crops, Roundup is, which contains a variety of adjuvants and surfactants meant to help the glyphosate penetrate into tissues. And indeed when the study was repeated with what's actually sprayed on GMO crops, there were toxic and hormonal effects even at doses smaller than the 1 or 2% concentration that's used out on the fields.

Similar results were found for other major pesticides. It took until 2014, but eight out of nine pesticide formulations tested were up to one thousand times more toxic than their so-called active ingredients, so when we just test the isolated chemicals, we may not get the whole story. Roundup was found to be 100 times more toxic than glyphosate itself. Moreover, Roundup turned out to be among the most toxic pesticides they tested. It's commonly believed that Roundup is among the safest, though, an idea spread by Monsanto, the manufacturer. However, this inconsistency between scientific fact and industrial claim may be attributed to the huge economic interests involved.

What is glyphosate? Check out: Are GMOs Safe? The Case of BT Corn.

It's the dose that makes the poison, though. Do we have evidence that the levels of Roundup chemicals not only found on crops, but also in our bodies after eating those crops actually have adverse effects? That's the subject of the video: GMO Soy and Breast Cancer.

Commercial interests can have a corrupting effect on the science of nutrition and hold sway over institutions that are supposed to operate in the public interest. See for example:

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine

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Is Insecticidal GMO Corn Safe?

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Recently the prominent science journal Nature editorialized that we are now swimming in information about genetically modified crops, but that much of the information is wrong--on both sides of the debate. "But a lot of this incorrect information is sophisticated, backed by legitimate-sounding research and written with certitude," adding that with GMOs, "a good gauge of a statement's fallacy is the conviction with which it is delivered."

To many in the scientific community, GMO concerns are dismissed as one big conspiracy theory. In fact, one item in a psychological test of belief in conspiracy theories asked people if they thought food companies would have the audacity to be dishonest about genetically modified food. The study concluded that many people were cynical and skeptical with regard to advertising tricks, as well as the tactics of organizations like banks and alcohol, drug, and tobacco companies. That doesn't sound like conspiracy theory to me; that sounds like business as usual.

We must remember there is a long legacy of scientific misconduct. Throw in a multi-billion dollar industry, and one can imagine how hard it is to get to the truth of the matter. There are social, environmental, economic, food security, and biodiversity arguments both pro and con about GMOs, but those are outside my area of expertise. I'm going to stick to food safety. And as a physician, I'm a very limited veterinarian--I only know one species (us!). So, I will skip the lab animal data and ask instead: What human data do we have about GMO safety?

One study "confirmed" that DNA from genetically modified crops can be transferred into humans who eat them, but that's not what the study found, just that plant DNA in general may be found in the human bloodstream, with no stipulations of harm (See Are GMOs Safe? The Case of Bt Corn).

Another study, however, did find a GMO crop protein in people. The "toxin" was detected in 93 percent of blood samples of pregnant women, 80 percent of umbilical cord blood samples, and 69 percent of samples from non-pregnant women. The toxin they're talking about is an insecticidal protein produced by Bt bacteria whose gene was inserted into the corn's DNA to create so-called Bt-corn, which has been incorporated into animal feed. If it's mainly in animal feed, how did it get into the bodies of women? They suggest it may be through exposure to contaminated meat.

Of course, why get GMO's second-hand when you can get them directly? The next great frontier is transgenic farm animals. A genetically modified salmon was first to vie for a spot at the dinner table. And then in 2010, transgenic cows, sheep, goats and pigs were created, genetically modified for increased muscle mass, based on the so-called mighty mouse model. Frankenfurters!

But back to children of the corn and their mothers. When they say it's a toxin, it's a toxin to corn worms, not necessarily to people. In fact I couldn't find any data linking BT toxin to human harm, which is a good thing since it's considered one of the few pesticides considered so non-toxic that it's sprayed on organic fruits and vegetables.

For more on on the public health implications of genetically modified crops, see:

I did a similar "controversial issue" video series on gluten. See:

For those interested in the genetic engineering of livestock, I published a few papers myself on the topic:

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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No More Than a Quart a Day of Hibiscus Tea

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Over the counter antacids are probably the most important source for human aluminum exposure in terms of dose. For example, Maalox, taken as directed, can exceed the daily safety limit more than 100-fold, and nowhere on the label does it say to not take it with acidic beverages such as fruit juice. Washing an antacid down with orange juice can increase aluminum absorption 8-fold, and citric acid-the acid found naturally concentrated in lemon and limes--is even worse.

Just as sour fruits can enhance the absorption of iron (a good thing), the same mechanism they may enhance the absorption of aluminum (a bad thing). This raises the question of what happens when one adds lemon juice to tea? Previously, I concluded that the amount of aluminum in tea is not a problem for most people because it's not very absorbable (See Is There Too Much Aluminum in Tea?). What if we add lemon? Researchers publishing in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology found no difference between tea with lemon, tea without lemon, or no tea at all in terms of the amount of aluminum in the bloodstream, suggesting that tea drinking does not significantly contribute to aluminum getting inside the body.

The researchers used black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, but what about the "red zinger" herbal tea, hibiscus? The reason hibiscus tea is called "sour tea" is because it has natural acids in it like citric acid. Might these acids boost the absorption of any hibiscus's aluminum? While a greater percentage of aluminum gets from the hibiscus into the tea water than from the other teas, there's less aluminum overall.

The real question is whether the aluminum then gets from the tea water into our bodies. We don't have that data, so to be on the safe side we should assume the worst: that hibiscus tea aluminum, unlike green and black tea aluminum, is completely absorbable. In that case, based on this data and the World Health Organization weekly safety limit, we may not want to drink more than 15 cups of hibiscus tea a day, (based on someone who's about 150 pounds). If you have a 75 pound 10-year-old, a half-gallon a day may theoretically be too much. Recent, more extensive testing highlighted in my video, How Much Hibiscus Tea is Too Much?, suggests that levels may reach level twice as high. Therefore, to be safe, no more than about two quarts a day for adults, or one quart a day for kids or pregnant women. Hibiscus tea should be completely avoided by infants under six months--who should only be getting breast milk--as well as kids with kidney failure, who can't efficiently excrete it.

There is also a concern about the impressive manganese level in hibiscus tea. Manganese is an essential trace mineral, a vital component of some of our most important antioxidant enzymes, but we probably only need about two to five milligrams a day. Four cups of hibiscus tea can have as much as 17 milligrams, with an average of about ten. Is that a problem?

One study from the University of Wisconsin found that women given 15 milligrams of manganese a day for four months, saw, if anything, an improvement in their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant enzyme activity. Another study using 20 milligrams a day similarly showed no adverse short-term effects, and importantly showed that the retention of dietary manganese is regulated. Our bodies aren't stupid; if we take in too much manganese, we decrease the absorption and increases the excretion. Even though tea drinkers may get ten times the manganese load (10 or 20 milligrams a day) the levels in their blood are essentially identical. There is little evidence that dietary manganese poses a risk.

These studies were conducted with regular tea, though, so we don't know about the absorption from hibiscus. To err on the side of caution we should probably not routinely exceed the reference dose of ten milligrams per day, or about a quart a day for adults and a half-quart for a 75 pound child.

I've actually changed my consumption. Given the benefits of the stuff, I was using it as a substitute for drinking water, drinking around two quarts a day. I was also blending the hibiscus petals in, not throwing them away, effectively doubling the aluminum content, and increasing manganese concentrations by about 30%. So given this data I've cut back to no more than a quart of filtered hibiscus tea a day.

Lemon can actually boost the antioxidant content of green and white tea. See Green Tea vs. White. For a comparison of their cancer-fighting effects in vitro, Antimutagenic Activity of Green Versus White Tea.

Before that I covered another potential downside of sour tea consumption in Protecting Teeth From Hibiscus Tea, and before that a reason we should all consider drinking it in: Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension.

For more on the iron absorption effect, see my video Risks Associated with Iron Supplements.

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Eating Garlic and Raisins May Help Prevent Preterm Birth

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The United States has one of the worst premature birth rates in the world, now ranking 131st worldwide. Even worse, over the last few decades, the rate of preterm birth in the U.S. has been going up.

We've known that preterm delivery is associated with significant problems during infancy, and almost three quarters of all infant deaths. Unfortunately even preemies who survive past infancy may carry a legacy of health issues, such as behavioral problems, moderate to severe neurodevelopmental disabilities and psychiatric disorders in half of those born extremely preterm by the time they reach school-age. There's even evidence now that adults born very prematurely are at increased risk for things like heart disease and diabetes. And babies don't even have to be born that premature to suffer long-term effects. Even so-called near-term births at 36 or 37 weeks are now thought to be related to subtle developmental problems. So what can pregnant women do to decrease this risk?

66,000 pregnant women were studied to examine whether an association exists between maternal dietary patterns and risk of preterm delivery. Researchers compared a so-called "prudent," which was more plant-based versus a Western or traditional Scandinavian diet (vegetables, fruits, oils, water as beverage, whole grain cereals, fiber rich bread) versus the "Western" (salty and sweet snacks, white bread, desserts, processed meat products), and found that the "prudent" pattern was associated with significantly reduced risk of preterm delivery.

Inflammation is thought to play a role in triggering delivery, so a diet characterized by high intakes of vegetables, fruit and berries can reduce both systemic and local inflammation, and the lower saturated fat levels would also be associated with reduced inflammation. Any foods in particular?

A significant percentage of preterm deliveries are thought to be related to infections and inflammatory conditions in the genital tract. Garlic is well-known for its antimicrobial properties, and also has probiotic dietary fibers that feed our good bacteria. Dried fruit is also packed with fiber and has antimicrobial activities against some of the bacteria suspected to play a role in preterm delivery.

Researchers (highlighted in my video, Garlic and Raisins to Prevent Premature Birth) studied the garlic, onion and dried fruit intake of nearly 19,000 pregnant women, and indeed, they observed a reduced risk of spontaneous preterm delivery related to groups of garlic and onion family vegetables and dried fruits. In particular, garlic stood out for the vegetables and raisins stood out for the dried fruit. Both were associated with a reduced risk of both preterm delivery and preterm pre-labor rupture of membranes, which means your water breaking prematurely (before 37 weeks). And it didn't seem to take much. The so-called "high" garlic intake associated with the lowest risk was just about one clove a week or more, and "high" raisin intake was defined as just one of those mini snack boxes of raisins a month.

Here's the video on aspartame (NutraSweet) and diet soda during pregnancy: Diet Soda and Preterm Birth.

Some other popular pregnancy videos include:

More on garlic in #1 Anti-Cancer Vegetable and Cancer, Interrupted: Garlic and Flavenoids.

Videos on dried fruit include:

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Why are Chickens Fed Prozac?

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Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would "help prevent miscarriages." Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it became clear that DES was not only ineffective but potentially harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow "abnormally tall." As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap ... it provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess; and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners."

What most people don't know is that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, used to improve "feed conversion" in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval, DES was fed to millions of farm animals. Although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, DES used in meat production was not completely banned until 1979. (Now, the meat industry just uses different synthetic estrogen implants.) Even decades after DES was banned, we're still seeing its effects--an elevation of birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic not only ends up in the meat (as I've talked about previously in Arsenic in Chicken and How Many Cancers Caused by Arsenic Laced Chicken?), but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. Because a third of the bird is inedible, the industry takes billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers and uses them as fertilizer and animal feed. This feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Straight feathers are not particularly nutritious; so guts, heads, and feet may be added for a little extra protein, and manure added for minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat. This gave researchers at John Hopkins University and Arizona State an idea. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. In their study, "Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products," (highlighted in my video, Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers) they found that all feather samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs (between two and ten different kinds in each sample), including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. Either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff, or it's being used in other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when feather meal is fed back to chickens, they are getting exposed to this drug that is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers contained a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, an antihistamine, a fungicide, a sex hormone, and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently, the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so they eat more and grow faster.

The drugs fed to chickens are one reason used to explain why poultry has been tied to increased cancer risk. See Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?.

The most concerning drugs currently in the U.S. poultry supply are the antibiotics, though. See, for example:

Ironically, not only may antibiotics in chicken contribute to antibiotic resistant infections, but to the infections in the first place. Check out my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections.

Then as if adding potentially harmful chemicals to the chickens themselves wasn't bad enough, more are added in the processing plant: Phosphate Additives in Chicken.

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Salmon May Be the Greatest Source of Dietary Pollutants

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In my video Diabetes and Dioxins, I explored a nationwide study that found a strong dose-response relationship between industrial toxins and diabetes. Since then, Harvard researchers have reported a link between persistent pollutants like hexachlorobenzene and diabetes in their Nurse's Health Study (See Food Sources of Perfluerochemicals). This is supported by an analysis they did of six other studies published since 2006 that showed the same thing. The Harvard researchers conclude that "past accumulation and continued exposure to these persistent pollutants may be a potent risk factor for developing diabetes."

Where is hexachlorobenzene found? In a U.S. supermarket survey, salmon and sardines were most heavily tainted with hexachlorobenzene, with salmon "the most contaminated food of all." Farmed salmon specifically is perhaps the greatest source of dietary pollutants, averaging nearly ten times the PCB load of wild-caught salmon.

Wait, isn't there a flaw in this argument? Since many of these chemicals were banned in the 70's, the levels inside people have been going down, whereas the rates of diabetes have been shooting straight up. Therefore, how could pollutant exposure be causing diabetes? This puzzle may be explained by our epidemic of obesity. The nationwide study found that the association between these toxins and diabetes was much stronger among obese subjects than among lean subjects. As people get fatter, the retention and toxicity of pollutants related to the risk of diabetes may increase.

So we're not just exposed by eating the fat of other animals; our own fat can be a continuous source of internal exposure because these persistent pollutants are slowly but continuously released from our fat stores into our circulation.

They don't call them "persistent pollutants" for nothing. These chemicals have such a long half-life that people consuming regular (even just monthly) meals of farmed salmon might end up retaining these chemicals in their bodies for 50 to 75 years.

Hexachlorobenzene in fish has been tied to diabetes; what about the mercury? A 1995 study highlighted in my video, Pollutants in Salmon and Our Own Fat, out of Japan found that diabetics do seem to have higher mercury levels in their body. Mercury alone does not seem to increase diabetes risk, though. It may be the simultaneous exposure to both dioxins and mercury that increases risk, so the safety limits for dioxins and mercury individually may underestimate the risk when they're consumed together in seafood.

So while the pharmaceutical industry works on coming up with drugs to help mediate the impact of these pollutants, a better strategy might be to not get so polluted in the first place.

Unfortunately, because we've so contaminated our world, we can't escape exposure completely. You have to eat something. Some foods are more contaminated than others, though. Exposure to these pollutants comes primarily from the consumption of animal fat, with the highest levels found in fatty fish like salmon. Farmed Atlantic salmon may be the single largest source of these pollutants, and that's the kind of salmon we most commonly find in supermarkets and restaurants.

We hear about advisories warning pregnant women to avoid the consumption of food containing elevated levels of pollutants and mercury, but as a public health journal article points out, since these toxins bio-accumulate in the body for many years "restricting the exposure to these pollutants only during pregnancy would not protect the fetus or future generations against the harmful effects of these hazardous chemicals."

For the existing links between seafood and diabetes risk, see Fish and Diabetes and I explored this concept of our own body fat as a reservoir for disease-causing pollutants in Diabetes and Dioxins.

More on hexachlorobenzene in my video Food Sources of Perfluorochemicals.

Our body has a tougher time getting rid of some toxins than others:

The best way to detox is to stop toxing in the first place.

-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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Dr. Greger’s 2015 Live Year-in-Review Presentation

Food as Medicine

View my new live presentation here: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet

Every year I scour the world's scholarly literature on clinical nutrition, pulling together what I find to be the most interesting, practical, and groundbreaking science on how to best feed ourselves and our families. I start with the thousands of papers published annually on nutrition (27,000 this year--a new record!) and, thanks to a crack team of volunteers (and now staff!), I'm able to whittle those down (to a mere 8,000 this year). They are then downloaded, categorized, read, analyzed, and churned into the few hundred short videos. This allows me to post new videos and articles every day, year-round, to NutritionFacts.org. This certainly makes the site unique. There's no other science-based source for free daily updates on the latest discoveries in nutrition. The problem is that the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Currently I have more than a thousand videos covering 1,931 nutrition topics. Where do you even begin? Many have expressed their appreciation for the breadth of material, but asked that I try to distill it into a coherent summary of how best to use diet to prevent and treat chronic disease. I took this feedback to heart and in 2012 developed Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, which explored the role diet may play in preventing, arresting, and even reversing our top 15 killers. Not only did it rise to become one of the Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2012, it remains my single most viewed video to date, watched over a million times (NutritionFacts.org is now up to more than 1.5 million hits a month!).

In 2013 I developed the sequel, More Than an Apple a Day, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most common conditions. I presented it around the country and it ended up #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2013. Then in 2014 I premiered the sequel-sequel, From Table to Able, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most disabling diseases, landing #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2014.

Every year I wonder how I'm going to top the year before. Knowing how popular these live presentations can be and hearing all the stories from folks about what a powerful impact they can have on people's lives, I put my all into this new 2015 one. I spent more time putting together this presentation than any other in my life. It took me an entire month, and when you see it I think you'll appreciate why.

This year, I'm honored to bring you Food as Medicine, in which I go through our most dreaded diseases--but that's not even the best part! I'm really proud of what I put together for the ending. I spend the last 20 minutes or so (starting at 56:22) going through a thought experiment that I'm hoping everyone will find compelling. I think it may be my best presentation ever. You be the judge.

You can watch it at no cost online, but it is also available on DVD through my website or on Amazon. If you want to share copies with others, I have a five for $40 special (enter coupon code 5FOR40FAM). All proceeds from the sales of all my books, DVDs, downloads, and presentations go to the 501c3 nonprofit charity that keeps NutritionFacts.org free for all, for all time. If you want to support this initiative to educate millions about eradicating dietary diseases, please consider making a donation.

After you've watched the new presentation, make sure you're subscribed to get my video updates daily, weekly, or monthly to stay on top of all the latest.

-Michael Greger

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How Curry Can Kill Cancer Cells

NF-May12 Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death.jpg

It is estimated that the human body consists of ten or so trillion cells. Almost all of these cells get turned over within approximately 100 days. That means we're like a new person every three months. We reinvent ourselves physically. And since we're physically made of air, water, and food--those are essentially the only inputs--we are what we eat, literally and physically. In a sense our body has to rebuild itself every three months with the building materials we deliver to it through our stomach. Our mouths are like the access road to the continual construction site of our body. Trucks roll in three times a day. What do we want them to deliver? Some shoddy cheap stuff we scrounged around for or bought at the discount outlets that's just going to fall apart? Or do we want to build our foundation solid? We are each walking inside the greatest known architectural structures in the universe. Let's not ruin such grand blueprints by consuming junk.

We only own the biological real estate we're born with, so if we need to rebuild every three months, we also need a wrecking crew. If we're replacing ten trillion cells every hundred days, that means we have to kill off about 100 billion cells every day. Out with the old, in with the new. We do that primarily through "apoptosis," pre-programmed cell death (from the Greek ptosis, meaning "falling", and apo, "away from"). For example, we all used to have webbed fingers and toes. Literally. Each one of us did in the womb until about four months, when apoptosis kicked in, and the cells in the webbing kill themselves off to separate our fingers.

However, some cells overstay their welcome: cancer cells. They don't die when they're supposed to by somehow turning off their suicide genes. What can we do about that? Well, one of the ways the yellow pigment in curry powder kills cancer cells is by reprogramming the self-destruct mechanism back into cancer cells. Let me just run through one of these pathways.

FAS is a so-called death receptor that activates the FAS associated death domain, death receptor five, and death receptor four. The FADD associated death domain then activates caspase-8, which "ignites the death machine," and kills the cell. (To see the diagram of the pathway, go to my video Turmeric Curcumin Reprogramming Cancer Cell Death). Where does curry powder fit into all this? In cancer cells, curcumin, the pigment in the spice turmeric that makes curry powder yellow, upregulates and activates death receptors (as shown in human kidney cancer cells, skin cancer cells, and nose and throat cancer cells).

Curcumin can also activate the death machine directly (as shown in lung cancer and colon cancer). Caspases are so-called "executioner enzymes," that when activated, destroy the cancer cell from within by chopping up proteins left and right--kind of like death by a thousand cuts.

And that's just one pathway. Curcumin can also affect apoptosis in a myriad other ways, affecting a multitude of different types of cancer cells. It also tends to leave normal cells alone for reasons that are not fully understood. Overall, researchers "showed that curcumin can kill a wide variety of tumor cell types through diverse mechanisms. And because curcumin can affect numerous mechanisms of cell death at the same time, it's possible that cancer cells may not easily develop resistance to curcumin-induced cell death like they do to most chemotherapy."

For more on turmeric and cancer, check out Back to Our Roots: Curry and Cancer and Carcinogen Blocking Effects of Turmeric.

Other herbs and spices such as garlic and amla have similar selective effects against cancer cell (See #1 Anticancer Vegetable and Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse than Lead Paint Exposure).

I talk more about this concept of "apoptosis," programmed cell death in:

What else can turmeric do? Here's the videos I have so far (with more on the way!):

-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.

Image Credit: Steven Jackson / Flickr

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