Toxins in Food: When Should We Be Concerned?

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

When articles report on toxins in food, the public understandably reacts with fear and concern. After all, we want to know what we’re putting into our body. But by reading news articles with a critical lens, we can decide for ourselves whether these toxins pose a legitimate threat.

Toy cow & pig on a cutting board with syringes and pills

Reporting on Toxins: A Delicate Balance

Media accounts of health issues tend to reflect one of two extremes. Either something is very good, like a miracle cure or a treatment breakthrough, or something is very bad, like the top 10 foods that are killing you.

The latter is especially true in news stories about toxins.

Think about that word, toxins. Even the word is kind of scary, isn’t it?

The idea that there are toxic things in our environment, things that we eat or breathe, things that are poisoning us and making us sick—these are fears that speak to very ancient beliefs about purity and our bodies. And the toxins themselves, the chemicals, may be present in such small amounts that we’d hardly notice them.

None of us can know if we’re being exposed. So we have to trust other people, the scientists and chemists and doctors, and big industries with factories and farms.

Plus, we have to trust the government to enforce standards to ensure the safety of our air and water and food. All of this affects the gut reaction we experience when there’s news about the latest toxin scare, and that makes us vulnerable to scaremongering and hype.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Since human health depends on a clean environment and safe food and water, industrial chemicals and food contaminants aren’t things we can dismiss.

To cover health news about toxins and toxic exposures, the media has to straddle a line. The media shouldn’t unnecessarily scare people, but the public should, of course, be alerted to genuine threats.

So, in terms of reporting on toxins and health, how is the media doing? Are good tools available to the public for critically evaluating the media reports? Are there some red flags that are easy to spot?

Media coverage sometimes highlights news stories that aren’t really helpful for attaining high-quality health news. Below are some examples.

Why the Source Makes All the Difference

A 2017 headline from Cleveland’s Fox8 read “Two-Thirds of Popular Baby Food Products Test Positive for Arsenic, Other Toxins.” The story said that “According to a report released this week, two-thirds of baby food products in the United States test positive for arsenic and other toxins.”

In the next paragraph, “The study was conducted over a period of five months by the Clean Label Project and included samples from 500 infant formulas and baby food products from 60 brands.”

Three open jars of baby food on wood surface surrounded by fruits, vegetables, and a spoon

These were screened, the story continues, for 130 toxins including heavy metals, pesticides, and other contaminants. Arsenic, the story says, was found in 65% of baby food products, and five popular brand names are listed as the, “worst offenders.”

Very similar stories appeared simultaneously at dozens of other sites. Indeed, if that’s all you’d have read, that does sound scary. Arsenic in 65% of baby foods and formula?

USA Today, under the headline “These Baby Foods and Formulas Tested Positive for Arsenic, Lead, and BPA in New Study,” did give at least a little more information. Though the newspaper provided very similar, alarming text about the number of products that were implicated, unlike most of the other media outlets, it also mentioned that these findings were not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

That was the first tip-off: The entire story was driven by, essentially, a press release—a document released to a large number of media outlets, in this case by a nonprofit organization called the “Clean Label Project.”

This same organization had released a similar report about what it characterized as contaminants in pet foods. And actually, on its website, some of the verbiage about the pet food report was copied verbatim into the material about baby food.

The source of a health story is important, and it’s one of the first things you should look for when you’re reading a story. Traditional, dependable scientific studies are published in what are called “peer-reviewed journals,” including many you’ve heard of: The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Peer reviewed means that every publication has been vetted, or reviewed for accuracy, by peers—in this case, other physicians and scientists in the field. This process doesn’t guarantee that the study is flawless, but it’s an important step, and at least one way that legitimate journals try to make sure that what they’re publishing is reliable and accurate.

Journals also employ editorial staff and statisticians for additional review. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than accepting every press release as gospel.

Every story about this baby food contamination issue should have made clear that the findings weren’t from an accredited university or government agency, and were based on a non-published, non-peer-reviewed press release.

Make sure you think about that when you’re reading health stories. What is the source, and are you sure that it’s credible?

Or better yet, expect more than one source for most health stories, not just the scientists who perhaps authored a new paper, but viewpoints from other experts—genuine experts—in the field.

Stories can, of course, refer to press releases, but press releases should never be the entire source of a story; and material from a press release should always be viewed with at least a little skepticism.

Learn more about the fascinating media coverage of baby-food toxins

What Constitutes an “Unsafe” Amount of Toxins?

But this news story about toxins in baby food gets worse. Not only were many of these news outlets relying entirely on a press release, but the press release also lacked such a degree of crucial information that it was almost entirely meaningless.

The Clean Label Project’s press release, which they called a “white paper,” did not include the actual measurements of any of the contaminants they said they measured. Instead, they provided a star rating from 1 to 5 stars.

Laboratory . Evaluation of meat quality. The laborer examines the quality of meat in a research laboratory.

They didn’t say how they arrived at their star-rating system or how the chemicals were analyzed or the accuracy of their equipment. The quality of their evidence can’t possibly be determined without more information.

USA Today hinted at this by quoting a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokesman, “It is important for consumers to understand that some contaminants, such as heavy metals like lead or arsenic, are in the environment and cannot simply be removed from food.”

That quote is kind of awkward, and to a casual reader might not even be understood as reassuring. But what the FDA official is trying to say here is that just finding some quantity of a chemical in food, even a toxic chemical like arsenic, shouldn’t in itself be alarming.

Toxins are everywhere, and they’re a part of every food we eat. The question is, is the exposure, the amount of the toxin, potentially unsafe?

This “white paper” doesn’t help anyone determine this, because they didn’t tell us what the measured levels were, or whether they were above established safety limits. With sensitive equipment, a modern laboratory can find miniscule amounts of almost any chemical in any food specimen. That doesn’t mean anyone is likely to be hurt.

Learn more about the toxins in our food

Examining Kraft and Ben & Jerry’s Controversies

The story about toxins in baby food wasn’t an isolated incident. In the modern media world, press releases driving media worry about what’s in our food have become common.

In 2017, there were big media uproars about chemicals in the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner and in Ben & Jerry’s® ice cream. The New York Times published the headline, “Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.”

An eye-catching headline, yes, though further down in the story the article made the point that a typical child would need to consume 145,000 eight-ounce servings a day to reach the federal safety limit. That context is crucial, and you should be wary of any story like this that lacks that kind of comparison.

From USA Today, a headline read, “Chemicals Found in Mac and Cheese Powder Might Pose Serious Health Threat, Study Says.” By study, here, the newspaper was reporting on a press release from an organization called “KleanupKraft.org.”

Another media outlet, slate.com, did a better job reviewing this issue in its article, titled “Please Don’t Panic Over the Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese.” The review stressed that the levels found were far too low to cause health problems; though, it might be wise to keep “your mac and cheese intake below multiple boxes a day.”

So, to recap: Pay attention to sources and be skeptical of press releases. Legitimate news stories should rely on multiple sources, not just press releases from a single organization that may have its own slant to the news.

Also, look for context and exposition. You need to understand what a new finding means.

Just because, in these cases, certain chemicals were found, it doesn’t mean they were found near a level that should be cause for alarm.

Whenever you read a health story, sit back and ask yourself, “What does this mean?” You can’t always rely on the journalist who wrote a news story to have asked that important question.

From the lecture series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media, taught by Professor Roy Benaroch, M.D.

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