21 April, 2005
Pesticides – an holistic view
by Lisa Saffron
"Eating an organic apple every day is 100,000 times more
likely to give you cancer than eating food contaminated with residues
of the pesticide lindane". This statement is meaningless,
of course, as neither apples nor pesticide residues on food cause
cancer. In fact, a diet rich in apples and other fruit and vegetables,
protects against cancer.
But it is true that apples – as well as other plant-foods
– contain natural compounds which when extracted and given
to rats in abnormally high doses cause tumours. When thinking
about chemicals in food, we cannot trust in the safety of natural
compounds, nor necessarily assume the worst about synthetic compounds.
We have to know:
– whether the chemical could cause poisoning or cancer,
– whether people are exposed to high enough levels,
– whether our bodies have defence systems to cope with it,
– whether there are other chemicals in the food or diet
which could neutralise or counter its damaging effect.
Carcinogens and toxins: Apples contain a carcinogen
called caffeic acid, a compound naturally present in many kinds
of fruit and vegetables. The evidence that it is carcinogenic
comes from animal tests. Caffeic acid causes tumours when very
high doses (2% of the diet) are fed to rats or mice. The pesticide
lindane is also carcinogenic by these tests.
About half of the synthetic pesticides tested in rodents are carcinogenic.
Only 52 of the thousands of natural toxins present in plants have
been tested for carcinogenicity. Of these, 29 or nearly half,
are rodent carcinogens. They include caffeic add, psoralens in
parsnips, estragole in basil, symphytine in comfrey, allyl isothiocyanate
in brown mustard, and hydrazines in mushrooms.
Exposure: People are not usually exposed to high levels of caffeic
acid or lindane. In food, the levels are extremely low. But exposure
to caffeic acid from food is higher than to lindane residues.
In one apple, there could be 24.4 mg of caffeic acid. The daily
US average consumption of lindane residues in 1990 was
The majority of pesticides to which we are exposed are natural
compounds present as normal constituents of plants. Plants were
not placed on Earth in order to be food for humans. The plants
that were successful evolved ways to defend themselves from pests.
One way plants do this is by producing chemical compounds which
function as pesticides. Those used commercially include pyrethrum
from Chrysanthemum flowers and nicotine from the tobacco plant.
But even edible, nutritious and cancer-preventing plants contain
natural pesticides. Natural toxins can make up as much as 10%
of the plant's weight and are our largest dietary source of exposure
to toxic chemicals. People have learned ways to detoxify food-plants
by food preparation and cooking methods but it is not possible
to purify food of all natural toxins.
Natural and synthetic chemicals in food were ranked according
to their concentrations in food (based on USA data) and how potent
they are as carcinogens to rodents. According to this ranking,
daily consumption of apples, lettuce, parsnip and orange juice
poses far greater risk of cancer than do DDT and lindane residues.
This ranking is not proof that eating fruit and vegetables are
an important cause of cancer. It is proof of the extremely low
risk there is from pesticide residues in food and puts the risk
of cancer from synthetic and natural compounds into perspective.
Defence systems: The main way humans have evolved
to cope with the inevitable exposure to toxins and carcinogens
in food is through our physiological defense mechanisms. The defences
we have evolved are general systems, able to protect us against
a broad range of toxins of different chemical structures and from
a variety of sources. As long as the amount of toxin does not
overwhelm our defences, our bodies can de-toxify, store and eliminate
Defense mechanisms in the body are induced by the arrival of a
foreign chemical, whether from a natural or a synthetic source.
When the potato was introduced into Europe from South America
400 years ago, our bodies had not evolved specific defences against
the toxic glycoalkaloids in the potato – nor have we had
time to evolve new defences since. Nevertheless, humans have been
able to incorporate the potato into the diet as a nutritious staple
Interaction with other chemicals: A holistic approach to diet
and health should include the interactions between compounds in
foods. Food-plants are composed of thousands of chemicals. A few
of these are nutrients, others are toxins or carcinogens, most
have no known effect on human health and some protect against
disease. Protective factors include anti-oxidant vitamins and
minerals, flavonoids and indoles. Some chemicals, including caffeic
acid, are carcinogenic at high doses and protective at low doses.
At a concentration of 2% caffeic acid, rats develop stomach tumours.
At a concentration of 0.0005%, caffeic acid reduces the number
of tongue tumours induced by a known carcinogen in rats.
Very little is known about the amount of natural toxins and natural
protective factors in different foods, nor about how much of our
diet is made up of foods containing them. Nor is much known about
the way natural toxins interact with the rest of our diet. A chemical
extracted from a plant may be toxic or carcinogenic in laboratory
studies, but the plant itself may not be. Protective factors may
be present in the same plant or in the same meal or in the overall
diet. For example, Vitamin C in spinach inhibits the formation
of carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach from the nitrates
also in the spinach.
A diet rich in fruit and vegetables protects against many kinds
of cancer and against heart disease. Whatever carcinogenic and
toxic contaminants and natural constituents may be present in
food are clearly overpowered by the beneficial protective factors.
The common-sense view is that synthetic pesticide residues on
food are inherently bad and that natural compounds are inherently
good (or at least neutral). The fact is that plant-foods contain
chemicals that are not only as toxic or as carcinogenic as synthetic
pesticides, but in greater amounts. We cannot avoid potentially
harmful chemicals in food but we can prevent many chronic diseases
by eating a healthy diet. The apparent contradiction is resolved
by taking a holistic approach to food and health and disregarding
the reductionist theory that disease is caused primarily by unnatural