(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 6/10/11)
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a "dirty dozen" list each year based on a criminally misleading interpretation of the USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service, PDP pesticide residue data. The data actually demonstrates that the pesticide residues on foods are virtually all lower than the strict tolerances that have been set by the EPA. What the EWG completely ignores is the information on what chemicals the pesticide residues represents, what level was detected, and what is known about the toxicity or ecological effects of that chemical (kind of a large omission). They also fail to mention that each year only 18 or so commodities are tested, so whether a certain fruit or vegetable ends up on the "Dirty" list is really mostly a function of having been included in the PDP study in the first place. To make matters worse, EWG treats every "detection" the same, even though the risk associated with different residues can easily vary by a factor of 10 million or more. The press generally covers this nonsense in a completely uncritical fashion, and the net effect is that Americans consume less fresh produce and that only exacerbates our obesity-promoting diet.
I thought it would be good to post my personal list of dangerous foods based on more than 30 years of experience with food and agriculture. I am generally very confident in the safety and quality of the global food system, particularly the American food industry, but there are foods that I definitely avoid! Here is the list:
1. Bean sprouts or any other kind of sprouts
2. Organic corn chips
3. Foods sweetened with "fruit juice concentrate" from China
4. Nutmeg from India
5. Foods containing transfats
6. Peanuts from Africa
7. Organic, "ready to cook" meals
8. Raw milk
9. Agave nectar
10. Artisan breads with whole wheat "berries"
11. Brazil nuts
12. Raw peanuts in the shell
Here is my logic for each of these commodities.
1. Bean sproutsIt is no surprise that the source of the recent, disasterous German E. coli outbreak was bean sprouts. The growing conditions for making bean sprouts (and other sprouts) are perfect for growing human pathogens like E. coli or Salmonella, and the presence of manure and/or compost on Organic farms simply increases the chance of contamination. Remember that it was a farm in transition to Organic that caused the spinach-based outbreak in the US a few years ago. I would only eat sprouts if they were well irradiated.
2. Nutmeg from India
Because of moist conditions and poor storage, nutmeg produced in India is often contaminated with the fungus, Aspergillus flavus. This fungus produces one the the most toxic substances known to man - Aflatoxin. It is this toxin that I am trying to avoid for several items on this list.
3. Organic corn chipsCorn damaged by insects is often infected by the fungus Fusarium moniliforme which makes the mycotoxin, Fumonisin. Consumption of Fumonisin by pregnant women has been linked to higher rates of neural tube defects in their children. Conventional corn is now much less likely to be contaminated because it is protected by the GMO, Bt trait. Organic growers cannot use this trait, so their corn is much more likely to be contaminated.
4. Foods sweetened with "fruit juice concentrate" from ChinaMany people trying to avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup and processed sugar believe that products with "fruit sweeteners" are better. These now mostly come from China with no adequate system to check for old, nasty organophosphate insecticides that are widely used on crops like apples and pears in China. This is a source of pesticide residues that even I am concerned about.
5. Foods containing transfatsWhen the press and food manufacturing industry over-reacted to a linkage between "saturated fats" and heart disease, there was widespread use of "partially hydrogenated soybean oil" which turns out to be far, far worse for our hearts because it is a form of fat that never occurs in nature. I have been avoiding this fat for at least 25 years before it was widely recognized as dangerous.
6. Peanuts from Africa or AsiaFortunately there are few exports of peanuts from Africa or Asia. These crops are frequently contaminated with Aflatoxin. Liver cancer is a leading cause of death in those regions because of this mycotoxin. Fortunately, the Gates Foundation is funding the development of a fast and cheap test so that people can detect the contamination and avoid it.
7. Organic, ready to heat mealsConventional herbs and spices can be irradiated so that they don't carry pathogenic bacteria into the recipes where they are used (these are dried outside with no protection from bacterial or fungal contamination). For well cooked foods this is not an issue, but in the fast-growing, "ready-to-cook" segment, these ingredients are mixed in long before heating by the consumer, giving the bacteria time to grow. That is an excellent recipe for food poisoning.
8. Raw milkDrinking raw milk is like playing Russian Roulette. Sooner or later the drinker will get severely ill. It is particularly dangerous for children. Louis Pasteur figured this out in the 1880s and there is no good reason to stop "pasteurizing" milk.
9. Aloe DrinksIn Asian markets one can buy drinks with aloe. They taste great, but I have learned from a government scientist who monitors food safety issues that aloe "lights up" cancer screens in rats. It might be great for skin applications, but I'm encouraging my family not to drink it. (edited 4/6/12, earlier I had attributed this issue to Agave nectar).
10. Artisan breads with whole wheat "berries"Wheat can be infected with Fusarium head blight and that fungus often makes the mycotoxin called vomitoxin or DON. The US and Canadian grain elevators do a good job of diverting most of the bad grain to alternative uses or to an incinerator, but grinding the wheat to make flower also does a good job of diluting what gets through that filter and getting DON down to levels that don't effect anyone. The practice of using whole "berries" in artisan breads means that you can get enough vomitoxin in one piece of bread to make you sick.
11. Brazil nutsBrazil nuts are a wild crop which grows in the rain forest. The local indigenous people collect nuts that have fallen to the ground. The problem is that you don't know how long the nut was laying in the mud before it was collected. One Brazil nut can easily contain enough aflatoxin to kill you.
12. Raw peanuts in the shellPeanuts can also be infected with Aspergillus flavus and contain aflatoxin. In the US peanut industry, the peanuts are shelled and then the exposed nuts are sent down a line through a beam of ultraviolet light. If they fluoresce, a puff of air removes them from the line and they are discarded. The same is done with Almonds and pistachios. With peanuts "in the shell" there is no such screening step. It is not worth the risk to eat them.
You probably noticed how many of these dangerous crops involved aflatoxin. For people in the US and Europe, there isn't much risk, but fortunately, there is a way you can reduce the risk even further. When eating something that might have traces of aflatoxin (e.g. nuts, peanut butter), be sure to include a green vegetable with the meal. The chlorophyll that makes it green binds with aflatoxin so that you don't absorb it in your digestive system and it is just peed out. So, one of the best ways to reduce a REAL risk is to eat the very vegetables that the EWG wants to scare you away from eating.
Skull image from Simon Strandgaard. My website is Applied Mythology. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.