Healthy eating and food toxins have become a major concern for many in the era of ultra-processed foods and fast foods. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 (WHO, 2020) while malnutrition and hunger are also on the rise (WHO, 2019). It is not uncommon for these to exist in the same country, economy and even household. But how do food preparation and food toxins play a role in this? Let’s unpack.
Whilst much of the world’s nutritional problems occur due to inadequate access to sustainable food sources, lack of time and know-how have also been identified as major contributing factors (UN, 2020). Food preparation and knowledge of food toxins can combat these elements.
Why is food preparation and knowledge of food toxins important?
The Western world is often rushed. This means when it comes to food, we often make the quick, easy and convenient choice. Microwaved ready meals, fast food, food served in plastic containers, soda and things like pasta and other carbs are the go-to. A single portion of these foods occasionally is not likely to cause major health concerns, but a sustained diet of these foods can be problematic for your health.
A series of 28 studies was conducted in 2013 exploring the relationship between food preparation and health amongst adults. Some of these findings showed that those who were equipped with cooking classes were more likely to see positive health outcomes including improved cholesterol, improved blood pressure, lessened symptoms relating to disease such as arthritis and kidney disease and even men with prostate cancer showed improved quality of life. The review indicates that interventions involving home food preparation and/or cooking may result in favourable dietary outcomes, food choices, and other health-related outcomes amongst adults (Marla Reicks, et al, 2014).
By arming ourselves with the knowledge of cooking, food toxins and food preparation we allow ourselves to make informed, pre-emptive decisions regarding our food and therefore our health. Food preparation leads to us spending more time thinking about what we eat and less time at fast food outlets.
What are food toxins?
Food is the main source of nutrition for humans. However certain naturally occurring elements in food may contain toxic properties, otherwise known as food toxins. E.g. cyanogenic glycosides (many plants), solanine (green parts of potatoes, and potatoes stored in light), industrial pollutants (heavy metals), biogenic amines (fish) or mycotoxins (mouldy food stuffs). These elements and others (which we will discuss later) can cause allergic reactions, intolerance, or food poisoning.
Food toxins can be naturally occurring (direct contamination) or can be introduced during the practise of food processing (indirect contamination). Indirect contamination can occur during storage, handling or food preparation and is most frequently the result of lack of knowledge around food preparation.
Contrary to popular belief, pesticides and fertilizers and not as harmful as believed to be. They are less harmful the than the metabolic chemicals of the bugs and pests they deter. This is not to say that they are harmless (Waldemar M Debrowski, et al, 2004).
How can I improve my food preparation to avoid food toxins?
- Set aside time
Health and fitness fanatics have been known to set aside Sundays to prepare their meals for their upcoming week. Which ever day or time is most convenient for you, make sure have set aside dedicated time for food shopping and food preparation. If you are rushed you will be more likely to make unhealthy food choices. The most effective option is to shop for fresh produce and set aside daily time for food preparation. If your schedule is too busy for this weekly food preparation will do the trick. Weekly food preparation is still a more positive health choice than fast food.
- Arm yourself with knowledge of food toxins and food preparation
Knowledge is power. You may be preparing your food and storing it in containers that promote food toxins. You may be buying fresh produce and not preparing it properly, serving food toxins.
Arming yourself with knowledge is essential to positive food preparation. From reading the labels on your food products to reading up on food toxins, even taking a cooking class. Understanding nutrition is also important. Do you know how many calories you should be consuming every day? Is your magnesium intake high enough? What foods can you eat to improve your magnesium intake? This will aid you in preparing the correct amount of each food group to ensure a healthy, balanced diet.
- Watch your sugar intake
From an evolutionary standpoint sugar availability was limited. It was accessible either through fruit, which was limited by seasonal harvest and through honey, which was guarded by bees. Today sugar is added to nearly all processed foods, limiting consumer choice. Nature made sugar hard to get, man made it easy. In many parts of the world, people are consuming an average of more than 500 calories per day from added sugar alone.
Does sugar contain food toxins?
Evidence suggests that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity similar to the effects of alcohol. This is no surprise, because alcohol is derived from the fermentation of sugar
Sugar is also linked to a host of other chronic diseases and affects human health beyond simply adding calories.
Importantly, sugar induces all the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome. This includes:
- Hypertension (fructose increases uric acid, which raises blood pressure)
- High triglycerides and insulin resistance through synthesis of fat in the liver
- Diabetes from increased liver glucose production combined with insulin resistance
Some early studies have also linked sugar consumption to human cancer and cognitive decline (Robert H. Lustig, et al, 2012).
- Potatoes and food preparation
Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables and one of the easiest to prepare. While the food toxin risk in potatoes are low, you specifically be on the lookout for the colour green when conducting your food preparation.
The presence of chlorophyll in a potato means that a glycoalkaloid poison named solanine is also present. This nerve toxin can result in:
- Paralysis (if ingested in high amounts)
Never eat any potato leaves, stems, or sprouts, and avoid eating any potatoes that have a greenish tint.
If you eat that odd green potato, you’re probably not going to get sick. A healthy adult would need to eat nearly 2KGs of green potatoes in one sitting in order to have any neurological side effects. Children, however, due to their smaller size, are more susceptible (Waldemar M Debrowski, et al, 2004).
- Be aware of the fish you consume
Shellfish (muscles, clams, scallops, oysters, prawns, etc) are being heavily affected by the presence of microscopic algae. This microscopic algae in shellfish can cause harmful food toxin to be present and can consequentially cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) and Amnesic Shellfish Poising (ASP). Symptoms can include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Respiratory problems
How can food preparation prevent seafood poisoning?
Always buy your seafood from a trusted supplier that is a registered food business. Once bought keep seafood cold (5°C or colder) and refrigerate it immediately after buying it. When cooking, if its frozen, thaw it in the fridge before cooking it.
Avoid eating large fish from warm ocean waters, especially the head or organs.
If you are harvesting shellfish or reef fish, check with local authorities which species and waters are safe for harvesting (JPF D’Mello, 2003, Food Safety).
- Plastic packaging and food preparation
BPA (Bisphenol-A) is a food toxin found in food packaging, water bottles and canned items. Studies have shown that BPA can seep into the food or drink items and contaminate the food. This is determined by testing the levels of BPA in urine.
Is BPA contamination bad for my health?
In short, yes. There have been extensive studies into the affects of BPA on human and animal bodies. The findings suggest scary side effects, generally long term.
Some of the suspected side effects of high BPA intake include:
- Problems with reproduction and fertility
- Increased breast and prostate cancer risk in a developing fetus
- Insulin resistance
- Type 2 diabetes
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Altered thyroid hormone production and function
The recommended daily limit of BPA is 50mcg/kg of body weight. However, 40 independent studies have reported that negative effects have occurred at levels below this limit in animals. In other words, an exceedingly small amount of BPA can potentially cause serious long term health problems.
When storing or packing food during food preparation always check for BPA free plastics. Eating whole, or unprocessed foods can remove the risk of BPA almost completely and is therefore the best option (Laura N. Vandenberg, et al, date unknown).
Dr Matt le Roux works with a variety of concerns, ranging from acute, chronic pain and complex injuries to nutritional, lifestyle, and performance enhancements. He is specialised in Sports Chiropractic and therefore can help you address concerns you may have surrounding your food preparation and the toxins found in your food. To get in touch, visit https://mattleroux.com/contact-us/
- World Health Organisation. 2020. Obesity and Overweight.
- World Health Organisation. 2019. World hunger is still not going down after three years and obesity is still growing.
- Marla Reicks, et al. 2014. Impact of Cooking and Home Food Preparation
- Interventions Among Adults: Outcomes and Implications for Future Programs.
- Waldemar M Debrowski, et al. 2004. Toxins in Food.
- Robert H. Lustig, et al. 2012. The Toxic Truth About Sugar.
- JPF D’Mello. 2003. Food Safety
- Laura N. Vandenberg, et al. Date unknown. Human exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA)