Pass the Toxins & Carcinogens

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It is that time of the year: parties, presents, family gatherings - and dining-room tables laden with a tempting array of mouthwatering, delicious, seasonal chemicals.

Chemicals? Yes.

We live in an intensely chemical-phobic society, one where food labels and menus brag of being "all-natural" and "purely organic." Poultry sections offer fryers from "happy, free range chickens." "Chemical-free" cuisine is in.

So it may come as a shock to you that even an all-natu- ral holiday feast (and every other meal you consume throughout the year) comes replete with chemicals, including toxins (poisons) and carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) - most of which average consumers would reject simply on the grounds that they can't pronounce the names.

Assume you start with an appetizer, then move on to a medley of crispy, natural vegetables, and proceed to a traditional stuffed bird with all the trimmings, washing it down with libations of the season, and topping it all off with some homemade pastries.

You will thus have consumed holiday helpings of various "carcinogens" (defined here as a substance that at high dose causes cancer in laboratory animals), including:

  • hydrazines (mushroom soup);
  • aniline, caffeic acid, benzaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, quercetin glycosides and psoralens (your fresh vegetable salad);
  • heterocyclic amines, acrylamide, benzo(a)pyrene, ethyl carbamate, dihydrazines, d-limonene, safrole and quercetin glycosides (roast turkey with stuffing);
  • benzene and heterocyclic amines (prime rib of beef with parsley sauce);
  • furfural, ethyl alcohol, allyl isothiocyanate (broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes);
  • coumarin, methyl eugenol, acetaldehyde, estragole and safrole (apple and pumpkin pies);
  • ethyl alcohol with ethyl carbamate (red and white wines).

Then sit back and relax with some benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, l,2,5,6,-dibenz(a)anthra- cene with 4-methylcatechol (coffee).

And those, all produced courtesy of Mother Nature, are only the carcinogens you just scarfed down. Your l00-percent natural holiday meal is also replete with toxins - popularly known as "poisons." These include the solanine, arsenic and chaconine in potatoes; the hydrogen cyanide in lima beans and the hallucinogenic compound myristicin found in nutmeg, black pepper and carrots.

Now here is the good news: these foods are safe.

Four observations are relevant here:

  • When it comes to toxins, only the dose makes the poison. Some chemicals, regardless of whether they are natural or synthetic, are potentially hazardous at high doses but are perfectly safe when consumed at low doses like the trace amounts found in our foods.
  • While you probably associate the word "carcinogen" with nasty-sounding synthetic chemicals like PCBs and dioxin, the reality is that the more we test naturally occurring chemicals, the more we find that they, too, cause cancer in lab animals.
  • The increasing body of evidence documenting the carcinogenicity (in the lab) of common substances found in nature highlights the contradiction we Americans have created up to now in our regulatory approach to carcinogens: trying to purge our nation of synthetic carcinogens, while turning a blind eye to the omnipresence of natural "carcinogens."
  • While animal testing is an essential part of biomedical research, so is commonsense. A rodent is not a little man. There is no scientific foundation to the assumption that if high-dose exposure to a chemical causes cancer in a rat or mouse, then a trace level of it must pose a human cancer risk.

If we took a precautionary approach with all chemicals and assumed that a rodent carcinogen might pose a human cancer risk ("so let's ban it just in case"), we'd have very little left to eat. (A radical solution to our nation's obesity problem!)

The reality is that these trace levels of natural or synthetic chemicals in food or the environment pose no known human health hazard at all - let alone a risk of cancer.

So the next time you hear a self-appointed "consumer advocate" fret about the man-made "carcinogen du jour" and demand the government step in and "protect" us - remember, you just ingested a meal full of natural carcinogens without a care in the world and with no risk to your health.

Pass the methyl eugenol! Bon Appetit!