You might have heard the phrase heavy-metals being banded around in wellness conversations, but do you know what they actually are? These health-disruptors can wreak havoc on your body, and they crop up all too often in our environment and, more terrifyingly, our foods. The main four; arsenic (yes, arsenic!), lead, mercury and cadmium worm their wily ways into some of the foods that the health-conscious among us consume pretty damn regularly.
Here’s what you need to know about toxic heavy metals in your food, and where to watch out for them:
They rob a food’s nutritional value
Yup, heavy metals quite literally steal the health benefits of that food. They generally make their way into the environment, and our food, as a by-product of industrial pollution accumulating in the soil in which the food grows. And, unsurprisingly, they have no place in our diet, or role to play in our health. Heavy metal exposure has been associated with a range of illnesses, but strongly linked to the development of cardiovascular disease.
They crop up in the healthiest of foods
Here are some of the worst offenders:
Mercury in fish
While the health benefits of consuming fish have been long-documented, increasing concern over high levels of mercury contamination could be seriously detrimental to your health. Mercury is particularly dangerous for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, with the Environmental Working Group recommending that pregnant women should ardently avoid high-mercury species such as tuna, sea bass, and halibut.
Safer options include salmon, shrimp, cod, and catfish; which is worth bearing in mind whether you’re pregnant or not—‘cause mercury poisoning ain’t no joke.
Arsenic in rice
Uhuh, the well-known rat-poison ingredient, arsenic, could well be knocking about in your rice.
Arsenic finds its way into food because it’s absorbed by the plant as it grows, and rice efficiently absorbs arsenic from irrigation water and soil. Excessive arsenic levels have been associated with lung, skin and bladder cancer, alongside a range of other health concerns.
Despite the fact that brown rice is commonly hailed as a healthier alternative to white rice, this report found that brown rice contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice because arsenic is most commonly found in the bran, which is removed to make white rice. So consuming more of the white varietal could be better for you—especially if you boil it in a 6:1 water-to-rice-ratio. This method of cooking has been shown to remove up to 60% of arsenic levels, which can make it a much safer grain to consume frequently.
Lead in bone broth
As one of the health community’s favourite foods, bone broth has become a cult millennial favourite, thanks to its naturally high protein and collagen levels, which makes it a great pick for everything from improving gut health to strengthening skin.
However, animals (and humans), when exposed to lead, store the heavy metal in their bone minerals. In 2013, scientists took stock of the levels of lead in broth made from the bones of organic chickens. The broth was found to have “markedly high lead concentrations”, which needs to be considered from a toxic point of view before consumption.
One of the easiest ways to reduce heavy metal accumulation in the body is by ensuring adequate intake of other minerals. Making sure you’re getting plentiful amounts of copper, iron, calcium, and zinc is one of the most efficient ways to avoid heavy metal toxicity; as when we’re deficient in micronutrients, the absorption of heavy metals in our gastrointestinal tract skyrockets.
While it’s unrealistic to expect that we can avoid heavy metal toxicity completely, we can educate ourselves as to how best to limit the impact that it can have on our health. And if that means slowing up on the bone broth and rice consumption, so be it.