From your classic barbecue dinner to your aunt's life-changing chocolate cake, you could be exposing yourself to a number of toxins. Here are a few foods to watch out for – plus some tips on how you can still enjoy them without risking your health.
Coumarin in cinnamon
While cinnamon is famous for its impressive health benefits – from lowering blood pressure to reducing the risk for cancer – the most common forms of cinnamon at the shops contain a toxic compound known as coumarin. You’ll find it in the C. cassia, C. burmannii and C. loureiroi varieties of cinnamon – the first of which is the most frequently sold. While low doses of this stuff should be safe, higher doses have been associated with liver damage and a higher risk for cancer. But it’s worth noting that you won’t know the exact dose of coumarin you’re getting in your container as it will vary from batch to batch. While the doses of cinnamon we use – for instance, a sprinkling over a beverage or cereal – is likely safe, some research has found that kids who sprinkled cinnamon over their bowl of oats regularly may have consumed dangerous levels of coumarin, even with that small dose. If you love cinnamon – and it’s health benefits – but want to sidestep the risks, there’s a type of cinnamon known to have far lower amounts of coumarin, though it can be harder to find in store. This cinnamon is known as Ceylon or true cinnamon – though you may have to seek it out online!
Cadmium in chocolate
Chocolate is one of Australia’s favourite sweets, but it’s not just an unhealthy treat – dark chocolate can make for a health-boosting snack when enjoyed in moderation. It’s loaded with iron and magnesium, making it a nutritious alternative to some unhealthier processed snacks. But a toxin known as cadmium has been known to contaminate the soil used in cocoa farms, and while industry boards declare that a small amount is safe to consume, some cocoa brands have overshot the limit. Fortunately, health standards have become stricter as the industry came under careful watch, leading to a far reduced incidence of unsafe levels of cadmium in chocolate – but it’s worth looking into your brand and its practises first. While cadmium is not as dangerous as heavy metals like arsenic, long-term exposure can accumulate in the body and result in health problems like cancer – keep in mind our body can take between 10 and 30 years to digest this stuff, and you don’t even need to eat a lot of it to start running into problems. It’s part of the reason that the safety standards recently changed in the European Union, lowering the threshold down to 0.1-0.8 milligrams of cadmium per kilo of chocolate. So, it’s likely that your bar of chocolate has safe levels of cadmium, depending on your country or region’s safety standards, but it’s still worth enjoying chocolate in moderation and doing some research on your favourite brand. Take a look at some of the other foods which likely contain cadmium:
Mercury in seafood
Seafood like fish may be loaded with healthy fats and essential vitamins and minerals, but some varieties are harbouring unsafe levels of mercury, a heavy metal. This comes down to the effect of the food chain, as plants grown in contaminated waters are eaten by fish, who may then be eaten by bigger fish – and this is why sharks and dolphins contain levels of mercury that are well past dangerous, and among other reasons like species endangerment and sustainability, it’s worth leaving these guys off your plate. But it’s not just the big fish of the sea, swordfish, king mackerel and some types of tuna are often dangerously high in mercury. This is particularly concerning as the latter tends to be a household staple for many, and mercury is a neurotoxin which can damage the brain and nervous system – it’s especially dangerous for a developing child.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
This may come as a disappointment to those of you who enjoy chargrilling your meat, but polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are often released in the process of burning foods at high temperatures, particularly when the fat drips onto the cooker and creates PAHs which then soak into the meat. Red meat has long been held responsible, but even chicken and fish can produce these PAHs at dangerous levels when smoked or grilled. The consequences are an increased risk for cancer – from breast and prostate cancer to colon and kidney cancer. It’s important to quickly remove drippings and reducing smoke in order to lower the number of PAHs, but slow-cooking or braising is the safest method.
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