Worried about 'toxins' in plant foods? Don't be.
Originally published in Inspired 55+ lifestyle Magazine, Oct/Nov 2023.
Updated Dec 2023.
Gluten, phytates, oxalates and lectins are just some of the “food toxins” in plants we are continually warned about. We are told to avoid these "anti-nutrients." If that’s the case, soon we won’t be eating anything because every plant on this planet has a protective property that is harmful to animals and humans if consumed in large quantities. Some of us may react badly to even small amounts.
In addition, certain people must avoid some of these properties, like those with celiac disease, who must avoid gluten or people with serious reactions to peanuts or shellfish (Incidentally, animal sources of food also have natural properties that may be harmful in large amounts – including aquatic foods).
Rice contains arsenic (more about rice at the end of this article). But so does broccoli and many leafy greens. Broccoli also has goitrogen, as does lettuce. Many foods have cyanide, including apple seeds, almonds, elderberries, nutmeg, mangoes, cashews, rhubarb and cassava (if uncooked).
Potatoes, tomatoes and blueberries (and many other foods) have solanine, which can cause paralysis in large amounts. Nuts, legumes and many other plants have phytates and/or lectins, so-called “anti-nutrients” that may inhibit the absorption of nutrients like calcium.
Spinach and lots of other plants are rich in oxalates, another “anti-nutrient.” And the list goes on and on. Every plant has a protective property to ensure its survival from the elements, insects and being overeaten. This is nature’s assurance that the plant will continue to thrive and not become extinct.
Rabbits in the wild will not overeat lettuce because they instinctively know the lactucarium and goitrogens in lettuce can harm them in large amounts. This is a perfect example of the balance animals – and humans – have with plant life. We benefit from the plant’s nutrients and the plant benefits by not being overeaten. It’s the win-win intuitive dance of nature.
But we humans have forgotten the steps in this life-on-Earth dance. For various reasons, we’ve lost this instinct or intuition. Many of us have become gluttons (knowingly or unknowingly), overeating certain foods, like wheat (it’s in everything!). In addition, we have well-meaning but misinformed, self-proclaimed ‘experts’ telling us to avoid certain foods because they happen to contain some type of “toxin” that will destroy our good health.
Every food contains at least one property that may be harmful in large quantities. So, if you listen to those who villainize a food because of one “toxin” (and sadly, ignoring all the nutrition the food offers), you will not be eating anything.
Instead, focus on choosing from a wide variety of real
foods in reasonable amounts. And more often, choose foods of high quality (whole, not refined) to ensure you get all the nutrients you need to survive.
Prepare your food as necessary (like cooking your cassava, soaking your beans before cooking them, etc.) and avoid overcooking to preserve the nutrients. It also means stop eating the same foods at every meal. Do you always have almonds for breakfast? Change it up occasionally with walnuts, filberts, etc. Instead of potatoes for each main meal, try sweet potato, jicama or even cassava. Eat spinach, Swiss chard, parsley or kale instead of lettuce in your salad. Don’t always have flax seeds; opt for chia, hemp or poppy seeds. You get the idea.
Change your food choices often and don’t overeat. You’ll keep the “toxins” down and the nutrient variety way up.
More about rice (Update Dec 12, 2023)
Rice is one of few foods we consume that is grown immersed in water. This can increase the organic concentrations of arsenic, which naturally occur in soil. Unfortunately, it may also increase the inorganic sources of arsenic (released into the environment via pesticides and fertilizer).
However, you can still safely eat rice. When buying rice, change it up with all the different types: black, wild, red, etc. Also, avoid buying your rice regularly from the same grower or area it was grown in (the package may indicate where the rice was grown). The levels of inorganic arsenic in rice varies on where it was grown, so you would be “diluting” your arsenic intake by varying the growing source. How you prepare and cook your rice also matters. Try this method: https://phys.org/news/2020-11-cooking-rice-arsenic-retains-mineral.html
Keep diet diversity in mind too. Instead of having rice all the time, have millet, buckwheat, quinoa, or alternate the different type of rice as noted above. For example, Consumer Reports says Basmati rice from California is the lowest in arsenic: https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm
And here is another tip: ensure you’re eating high fibre (plenty of plant-based foods) to keep you “regular” which may help lower the risk of storing properties (like inorganic arsenic) in your body.
Eve Lees has been active in the health & fitness industry since 1979. Currently, she is a Freelance Health Writer for several publications and speaks to business and private groups on various health topics. www.artnews-healthnews.com