While we all know what to avoid – think added sugar and deep-fried foods – you might be surprised that some of the healthier options come with a laundry list of dangers. From the new research around heavy metal content in some of the major dark chocolate brands to the pathogenic risks of raw milk, here are our tips to enjoy your favourite foods safely.
Dark Chocolate: The Bittersweet Truth
If you’re anything like us and enjoy a bit of dark choccie after a long day, you’ll want to tune in for this one. New research has found alarming results around the heavy metal content of some of your favourite brands – but don’t worry, you don’t have to ditch the stuff completely, just take caution when researching your brand choice and enjoy the snack in moderation. If you’re chowing through a whole block, you might have a problem. The recent investigation by non-profit consumer organisation Consumer Reports delved into 48 chocolates, including products like cocoa powder, chocolate chips, milk chocolate bars, brownie mixes, chocolate cake mixes and hot chocolate powder, revealing many well-known brands are harbouring unsafe levels of heavy metal presence. A whopping 23 out of 28 dark chocolate bars contained the dangerous chemicals, prompting an extension to include additional dark chocolate bars in the latest examination. It was the presence of toxic heavy metals lead and cadmium that alarmed researchers as these are associated with heightened risks of cancer and developmental issues in children – unfortunately all 48 products had some level of these metals, to varying degrees. Now the presence alone isn’t necessarily a cause for concern as, when consumed in moderation, our bodies can handle a small amount of these metals. But 16 of these products, hailing from well-known brands like Hershey's, Perugina and Nestlé were identified as having elevated levels of at least one heavy metal, surpassing what Consumer Reports deems safe. Let’s take a look at the results:
- Perugina's 85% Premium Dark Chocolate contained 539% of the lead safety threshold
- Evolved's Signature Dark 72% Cacao Chocolate Bar recorded 149% of the cadmium safety threshold.
While most milk chocolate bars, chocolate chips, and cake and brownie mixes exhibited acceptable lead and cadmium levels, the majority of dark chocolate bars, hot chocolate powders, and cocoa powders displayed levels above or close to the safety thresholds.
The potential dangers of lead exposure, including harm to foetuses, developmental issues in children, and reproductive problems in adults, are well-documented by the Mayo Clinic. Prolonged cadmium exposure can result in kidney disease, fragile bones, and an increased risk of cancer. Dark chocolate has long been celebrated for its potential health benefits, such as being a source of antioxidants and associated with heart health – and while there is absolutely truth to these claims, it's essential to look beyond the cocoa content and consider factors like sourcing and production. To enjoy these health benefits without the drawbacks, choose brands that prioritise quality and transparency in their sourcing and production processes. Dark chocolate from Mast, Taza, Balrhona and Ghirardelli were found to have lower levels of these heavy metals, making them a safer choice – whatever you do, be sure to hit the net before choosing your brand.
Raw Milk: A Controversial Choice
Raw milk, the unprocessed and unpasteurised version of milk straight from the cow, has garnered a reputation as a health food in some circles. Advocates argue that it preserves essential nutrients and beneficial enzymes that are destroyed during pasteurisation. However, it's essential to approach raw milk with caution. Pasteurisation, the process of heating milk to kill harmful bacteria, is responsible for making the milk you buy at the store safe to consume. Due to the rigorous farming processes that prioritise money and productivity over the health and safety of cows, infection and disease is rampant – but even in the most cautious of farms, harmful pathogens are near impossible to eliminate. That’s why raw milk consumption can lead to foodborne illnesses. While it's true that pasteurisation may reduce some heat-sensitive nutrients, it's a trade-off for the safety it provides.
Here are the key risks associated with consuming raw milk:
Bacterial Infections: Raw milk can be contaminated with various harmful bacteria, including Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Listeria, and Campylobacter. These bacteria can lead to foodborne illnesses that cause symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and, in severe cases, hospitalisation.
Brucellosis: Brucellosis is a bacterial infection caused by the Brucella species. Consumption of raw milk from infected animals can transmit this disease to humans. Symptoms of brucellosis include fever, sweating, muscle pain, and joint pain. It can become a chronic condition if not properly treated – so, if you’ve recently knocked back a glass of raw milk and are feeling a little out of sorts, it’s worth heading to the doctor.
Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS): E. coli O157:H7, a strain of E. coli, is a particularly dangerous pathogen sometimes found in raw milk. It can cause HUS, a condition characterised by kidney failure, haemolytic anaemia, and a low platelet count. HUS is especially concerning for young children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems.
Pregnancy Risks: Pregnant women are at higher risk when it comes to raw milk consumption. Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria commonly found in raw milk, can lead to listeriosis, which can cause miscarriage, premature birth, or severe illness in newborns.
Immune-Compromised Individuals: Individuals with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of severe illnesses caused by pathogens in raw milk.
Agave Nectar: The Sweet Deception
Agave nectar is often marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar because it boasts a low glycaemic index. However, this sweetener's perceived health benefits can be misleading. The process used to convert the agave plant's sap into nectar involves enzymatic hydrolysis, breaking down carbohydrates into fructose. The result is a product that is very high in fructose content, similar to high-fructose corn syrup. Excessive fructose consumption can negatively impact metabolic health, including contributing to insulin resistance and fatty liver disease. When it comes to natural sweeteners, consider options like rice malt syrup for a more balanced nutritional profile.
It's essential to remember that while these symptoms can be indicative of heart failure, they can also be attributed to other health conditions. If you experience any of these symptoms, it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation to determine the underlying cause and receive appropriate care. Early detection and management are key to improving outcomes in heart failure cases.
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