Digestive Health

25 August 2004

The dangers that lurk in food

Are you worried about reports that metal-contaminated fish could be harmful to your health? DietDoc takes a look at the dangers that may lurk in the food you eat.

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Are you worried about reports that metal-contaminated fish could be harmful to your health? DietDoc takes a look at the dangers that may lurk in the food you eat.

Heavy metals in fish
There have been reports of salmon and other fish being contaminated with a variety of heavy metals (mercury, lead etc.), but there is no way we can know if a specific piece of fish served up in a restaurant contains such contaminants or not.

The food industry in South Africa and other countries keeps a relatively good check on potential dangers. Salmon is probably tested for its heavy metal content before it is sold.

If the heavy metal content of any specific batch of fish is too high, according to national and international standards, the consignment would be condemned and not sold for export or local consumption.

But every now and then you may be served a food that is contaminated with heavy metals, pesticide residues, or acrylamide and other carcinogenic compounds. So what can you do about this problem?

Don’t panic
The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that national and international food regulations are strict and well applied, and that consumers are protected against the most serious contaminants. Don’t panic and don’t start avoiding perfectly good, safe foods because you have heard or read rumours, quite a few of which are unfounded, that food X is contaminated or dangerous.

If there is a 'food scandal', such as the incident where red wine in Italy was mixed with ox blood, the responsible authorities will clamp down on such produce, withdraw it from the market and punish the perpetrators.

If there is a lurking danger such as acrylamide, a chemical compound recently identified in certain baked products and snack foods, that is a potential carcinogen, you can be sure that the manufacturers are working round the clock to find ways and means to eliminate this compound in their products.

Food manufacturers want the public to buy their foods, so they are greatly concerned when there is a possibility that the foods they produce could harm their customers.

Eat a variety of foods
One of the best ways of minimising the potentially harmful effects of a given component in your daily diet, is to eat a wide variety of foods.

Let’s say that one of the foods you like to eat contains a pesticide residue that could be carcinogenic if consumed in large quantities over long periods of time. If you eat this food in small quantities at irregular intervals and not three times a day year in, year out, it is probable that you will firstly not ingest sufficient amounts of the pesticide residue to build up a level in your body that can be harmful.

Secondly, if you also eat lots of different foods that contain a variety of protective nutrients (vitamins, minerals, bioflavonoids, dietary fibre, photochemicals and many other nutrients that can make a positive contribution to your health and well-being), you will not only dilute the risk posed by the contaminated food, but also provide your body with the weapons to prevent and fight any negative effects caused by such a food.

The first food-based dietary guideline
This is one of the reasons why the most important food-based dietary guideline published by the South African Department of Health states: “Eat a variety of foods”.

Other good reasons why you should try to eat a variety of foods are that this will ensure that you do not develop deficiencies and not tend to gain weight. Studies have shown that people who eat a varied diet that includes many different foods, are less inclined to develop obesity and all its attendant problems such as diabetes and heart disease. Eating a variety of foods will ensure that you are not just concentrating on high-fat, nutrient-poor foods.

Food fortification
What about those people who are not able to afford a wide variety of foods? Many South Africans live on, or below the breadline, and there is no way that they can buy lots of different foods.

It has been suggested that just by creating a vegetable garden and growing a number of different inexpensive vegetables, a monotonous diet based on a staple food such as bread or maize meal, can be made more varied.

For example, if someone who eats mainly maize meal plants pumpkin, tomatoes and cabbage in a vegetable patch the size of a large dining room table, then that person would be adding beta-carotene (pumpkin greens and pumpkin flesh), lycopene (tomatoes) and vitamin C (tomatoes and cabbage) to her diet.

If this person also uses fortified maize meal (i.e. maize meal that contains added vitamins and minerals as specified by legislation), then she would be getting added iron, zinc, vitamins A and B2, folic acid and niacin.

Thanks to the government initiative which makes fortification of our two staple foods mandatory, both bread and maize meal nowadays make a much greater contribution to nutrition intake than in the past.

The sensible approach
The most sensible advice to follow when faced with rumours of lurking dangers in foods and beverages, is to find out if the rumour is true or not, and to eat a variety of foods to spread the risk and protect yourself against potentially harmful food components. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

 

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Digestive Health Expert

Dr. Estelle Wilken is a Senior Specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. She obtained her MBChB in 1976, her MMed (Int) in 1991 and her gastroenterology registration in 1995.

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