Traditional carcinogens for the holidays, anyone?

Published January 1, 2000

The traditional American holiday meal, which typically includes foods like mushroom soup, roast turkey, potatoes, green salad, fruit, and pumpkin pie, is really a chemical feast of toxins and carcinogens–all courtesy of Mother Nature.

Fearmongers advise us to avoid all synthetic “chemicals”–particularly herbicides and insecticides–by eating only so-called “organic” foods. The implication, of course, is that by doing so we will avoid poisoning ourselves and our families with the toxins and carcinogens in such man-made compounds. But the truth is far different.

In its annual Holiday Dinner Menu, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) presents a sumptuous holiday feast–including everything from soup to nuts–and lists many of the naturally occurring carcinogens that Mother Nature puts in our foods. Happily, the scientists at ACSH assure us that these natural chemicals are safe.

ACSH’s Holiday Dinner Menu highlights the natural carcinogens in our food to make a point: that the mere presence of a supposed cancer-causing agent–whether natural or synthetic–does not necessarily make that food dangerous.

As the Holiday Dinner Menu explains, the 1958 Delaney clause, part of an amendment to the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, banned from American food any artificial substance that could be shown to cause cancer in lab animals, including any pesticides and food additives. But the clause does not allow any consideration of the fact that in these tests, animals are subjected to very high doses every day for most of their lifespans. Nor does it take into account the typically minuscule and harmless amounts found in foods. Of course, the Delaney clause also did not acknowledge the presence of naturally occurring chemicals that are also rodent carcinogens.

In 1996, Congress amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to remove pesticide residues on processed foods from the requirements of the Delaney clause. They are still regulated, of course, but on a more reasonable basis–requiring evidence that there would be some risk to humans from consuming such residues. Food additives, however, remain regulated under the “zero-risk” provisions of the Delaney clause.

Traces of rodent carcinogens–either naturally occurring or manmade–in our food supply should trigger neither fear nor regulatory action. It is a principal of toxicology that “the dose makes the poison.” We can look at one naturally occurring carcinogen–furfural–that is found in bread, and calculate how much bread a 155-pound person would have to eat to be exposed to a dose comparable to that which causes cancer in rodent tests. ACSH’s Menu does that, and arrives at the astounding figure of 82,600 slices of bread every day for a lifetime!

Furfural is not the only rodent carcinogen in our holiday dinner, however. Here are some other examples:

  • First, there’s caffeic acid, a substance known to cause cancer in rodents. It’s lurking in that healthful-looking relish tray, in those crisp celery and carrot sticks. And if you don’t eat those, caffeic acid is also in that home-made apple pie!
  • How about heterocyclic amines? These compounds are also rodent carcinogens. Unless you plan to eat it raw, you’ll be consuming heterocyclic amines along with your beautifully browned roasted turkey.
  • Then there are aflatoxins. Toxicologists recognize aflatoxins as among the most potent animal carcinogens known. They are produced by a fungus that can contaminate peanut, corn, tree nuts, rice, and other crops. You’ll likely find tiny amounts of aflatoxins in your seasonal tray of mixed nuts.
  • Finally, for dessert, you can have a hint of acetaldehyde and a soupcon of safrole. Both are known rodent carcinogens. You’ll find them in that all-American favorite, apple pie.

The foods on ACSH’s Holiday Menu are healthful and wholesome, despite the presence of Mother Nature’s own carcinogens. High fruit and vegetable consumption has been found in numerous epidemiologic studies to lower the risk of some types of cancer. And these studies were not performed with organic foods!

Clearly, the real benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any hypothetical risks from consuming tiny amounts of potential carcinogens.

Those words should guide us all, individuals and regulators alike, as we assess the risks of any substance we find in our food. We should remember them, too, as we enjoy our holiday dinner and give thanks for the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.