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Toxins In Our Food Supply - Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on Toxins

Savannah Helm

By: Alicia Jerome MS, RDN

In an interview with the Institute of Functional Medicine, Joseph Pizzorno, co-author of Clinical Environmental Medicine stated, “Somewhat independent of people’s choices, the things which in the past have been normally considered healthy, or at least neutral, are now becoming significant sources of toxins for people.1

The study of environmental medicine and the impact our surroundings have on our body’s ability to perform optimally is a growing field revealing more and more about the toxic world facing the human race. Toxins can be in the food we eat and in the places we live. This blog will be on the toxins we face in the food we eat while the subsequent blog will focus on toxins in our environment.

Natural Protection

The quality of our diet consists of what we put into our body as well as what we don’t put into our body. Obviously, the goal should be to provide adequate supply of the natural protectants and limit that which can be harmful.

When we encounter a toxin, it can enter our bodies, it is considered a free radical, a completely unhinged reactive oxygen species wreaking havoc on everything in its pathway simply due to an unpaired electron. Free radicals cause oxidative stress, the main factor in aging and disease. 

We can’t avoid all free radicals. Our body even creates some free radicals in the process of metabolism. Fortunately, our incredible hepatic (liver) system uses a two-step process to neutralize and then eliminate the foreign invader before it can do damage. The first step of the process uses B vitamins, glutathione, branched-chain amino acids, flavonoids, and phospholipids to neutralize the fat-soluble toxin. Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, & E, thiols (from cruciferous vegetables, onions, and garlic), and some minerals are needed to protect this highly reactive substance until it can reach the second step. The second step uses amino acids to convert it into a water-soluble substance that the body can easily eliminate. 

Unfortunately, a poorly nourished or an overloaded body system results in a buildup of toxins that are ultimately stored in fatty tissue like the brain, belly, hips, nerves, and glands. Smaller amounts can also be stored in the bones and other body systems.

The old adage, “the best defense is a good offense,” is fitting in the world of food—a healthy diet and good health in general. It is well established that Americans need more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and foods that resemble their natural state. The CDC reports that only 1 in 10 Americans is getting the fruits and vegetables we need.2 Fruits, vegetables, foods grown from the earth contain protective components called antioxidants. These “superheroes” counteract oxidative stress by providing the coveted extra electron and reduce the formation of those pesky free radicals.

Darkly colored fruits and vegetables provide ample antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals that assist in the war on oxidative stress. Without these warriors we are left defenseless. Lack of magnesium (found in green leafy vegetables, like spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains), for example, can prevent the formation of glutathione peroxidase which acts as an antioxidant to neutralize free radicals.3 Whereas, consuming onions, one of the highest sources of the flavonoid, quercetin, can help significantly reduce oxidative stress, as demonstrated in animal studies.3 Both onions and leafy vegetables are found abundantly in the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean Diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds has been shown to be protective against oxidative damage.4

Overwhelming Pesticide Burden

We can also lighten the load by avoiding foods that add to the toxin burden. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2017 Shopping Guide, celery and peaches are among the most toxic fruit and vegetables.5 One simple way to reduce 1/3 of the chemical residues found on fruits and vegetables is to choose organically farmed produce.6 When organic is unavailable, using proper washing methods and peeling produce can also remove unwanted residues.

We can also be smart about our seafood purchases. It has been estimated that farmed salmon is responsible for 97% of dietary persistent organic pollutant (POP) exposure.7 Conventional tofu, normally considered a healthier food, is the largest source of cadmium, a cancer promoting mineral when large doses are ingested.3 And, love that morning cup of coffee? Be sure to use roasted beans as it clears 90-100% of the pesticides present on the beans.3 Given equal time of exposure, hot coffee with cream would have the most styrene transfer when served in a Styrofoam cup. This is because the fat content in the cream allows great styrene transfer.3

Heavy metals

Many heavy metals can cause chronic conditions. For example, exposure to arsenic can increase risks for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and COPD. Lead in the blood can lead to cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease, and reproductive issues; and, mercury is associated with central nervous system problems. Below are a few examples of the ways heavy metals can disrupt our equilibrium.


Arsenic in food can be hard to avoid. We are told to eat fish, but it is also the largest food source of arsenic.3 Rice, a staple among many population groups, also has been shown to have arsenic. However, arsenic content can be reduced by 39-45% when cooking rice with excess water.3 Fortunately, daily supplementation with folic acid, from foods like dark leafy greens, beans, and peanuts, has been shown to significantly lower blood arsenic levels. 


Most people think of tuna, tilefish, shark, and large predatory fish as the primary source of mercury. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data on mercury levels in fish and shellfish for 1990 to 2010, scallops are lowest which makes it the seafood lovers answer to mercury concerns.3 Nonoccupational mercury exposure is associated with hypothyroidism and blood sugar dysregulation, both endocrine disorders.3

Polluted Water

Current US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for drinking water only apply to 91 contaminants and the list has not been added to since 1996.3 One way to drink water safely is to use a reverse osmosis (RO) unit to remove 95% percent of all toxic compounds from water. Also, check the safety of the water at your home. A home built before 1986 would have a greater likelihood of lead in drinking water.3


The bones act as a storehouse for lead and can hold onto it for decades.3  But it doesn’t just affect the bones, the nervous system shows the most lead-induced problems. However, properties in the spice turmeric have shown to be a powerful therapy for lead exposure.3


When thinking of fluoride, one usually thinks of toothpaste or water. Thyroid gland function can become suppressed with prolonged consumption of fluoridated water.3 Aerosol propellants, pesticides, and Teflon cookware are all industrial sources of fluoride. Excess exposure to fluoride can lead to problems with the brain, bones, kidney, and other organ systems.3


It can be daunting to consider all the ways we must defend our body and health. Don’t stress, add more fruits or vegetables and be careful with your morning coffee. We’ll look closer at other ways toxins can sneak into our body in the next blog on toxins in our environment and living spaces.

Helm Publishing offers two courses on Clinical Environmental Medicine by Walter J. Crinnion, ND and Joseph E. Pizzorno, ND and you can learn more here.


  1. Toxins and toxicants as drivers of disease. The Institute for Functional Medicine. (2021, December 10). Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 16). Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  3. Crinnion W., Pizzorno J. E. (2019). Clinical Environmental Medicine: Identification and natural treatment of diseases caused by common pollutants. Elsevier.
  4. Mitjavila M.T., Fandos M., Salas-Salvado J., Covas M.I., Borrego S., Estruch R., et al. (2013). The Mediterranean Diet improves the systemic lipid and DNA oxidative damage in metabolic syndrome individuals. A randomized, controlled, trial. Clinical Nutrition, 32(2), 172-178. PubMed PMID 22999065.
  5. EWG 2017 Annual report. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from
  6. Baker, B.P., Benbrook, C.M., Groth, E., 3rd, Lutz Benbrook, K. (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants, 19(5), 427-446. PubMed PMID: 12028642.
  7. van Leeuwen, S.P., van Velzen, M.J., Swart, C.P., et al. (2009). Halogenated contaminants in farmed salmon, trout, tilapia, pangasius, and shrimp. Environmental Science & Technology, 43(11), 4009-4015. PubMed PMID: 19569323.

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