It’s no secret we live in a polluted world. Like it or not, we all have a very intimate relationship with chemicals that are a product of living in an industrialized world. From big businesses to large factories, there’s no hiding from it -- particularly when it comes to our foods. Now you may have guessed chemicals are in fast foods and junk foods, and that’s true, but in fact they are also in our fresh foods, organic foods, and even supplements for food, such as protein powders.
Heavy Metal Chemicals
Yes, chemicals can come from big businesses and large factories but heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium also come naturally from our planet. Let’s dive into a little more detail on these heavy metal chemicals.
Arsenic is a heavy metal that is naturally present in the air, water, and land, but is most abundantly found in the groundwater. Arsenic in groundwaters is found at very high levels due to human interference as previously noted. In an inorganic form arsenic can be very toxic.
It is thought that pesticides that have now been banned from the 1980s have left higher-than-natural levels of arsenic in the soil. When looking at proteins, rice protein is particularly at a higher risk due to the fact rice is grown in water-flooded conditions, which allows for arsenic to make its way through the plant’s roots in the soil and eventually is stored in the actual grain of rice.
Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to a number of health diseases and in the younger generations can negatively impact cognitive development.
Mercury is also a heavy metal found naturally in the earth’s crust. Mercury is especially dangerous as a small amount of exposure can cause serious health issues. It is due to human activity that mercury is released into our environment at the dangerous levels that become harmful -- particularly from coal-fired activities.
Mercury is found in high levels especially within fish. This is due to deep sea volcanic activity and fish consuming it directly. Small fish will consume a certain amount and the level of mercury will increase exponentially as you move up the food chain underwater.
When we are exposed to mercury, it can result in damage to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, as well as damage to several organs including the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes.
Like mercury, lead is a heavy metal found in the earth’s crust and contaminates our environment through human activities such as smelting, manufacturing, recycling, and mining. Exposure to this chemical through both ingestion and inhalation can result in disturbances in the brain, liver, kidney, and bones. It is especially harmful to young children.
Unlike some of the other heavy metals, lead can be controlled more easily. A recent law in the state of California was passed known as Proposition 65 (Prop 65), which is known as the safe drinking water and toxic enforcement act. This act has set strict levels that must be regulated. For example lead cannot exceed of 0.5 micrograms per serving in protein powders. If the product does exceed this number, the brand must put a large triangular warning sticker stating on the product label stating it does not pass Prop 65. And as I’m sure you can imagine, no one wants to be buying that product. Unfortunately, some brands were on the shelves prior to the new law and therefore, can pass as safe; or just don’t have their protein powder tested and choose to disobey this law while selling their product within the state of California.
Cadmium can be released into the environment naturally through both land and deep sea volcanic activity, but more often is found from human activities such as smoking, mining, smelting, and recycling to name a few.
Low concentrations of cadmium are commonly found in vegetables, cereals, and starchy roots. At high levels, cadmium ingested is found to create kidney stones and disrupt calcium metabolism. High levels of cadmium inhaled is found to have long-term negative health effects on the lungs.
Chemicals in our Environment
Now, granted, while these heavy metal chemicals are natural, there is more of a concentration of them as a result of human activities. For example, let's say we have a farm where you and I want to plant some vegetables. Well, if we are doing so fairly close by to a current or former smelting plant, a metal ore mine, the production of batteries, or some type of fuel or electric plant, that's a huge problem!
Furthermore, if you and I also wanted to use more of the prolific pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that are used in commercial produce, we are definitely introducing various toxic metals as well as other ingredients into our soil, and thus into our plants. Each of these chemicals have the ending of cide, which is the Latin word for “killer”. Pesticides are used to kill insects, mites, and rodents. Herbicides are used to actually kill specific plants instead of protecting them. For example, herbicides are used to kill weeds on a golf course or plants between the gravel on your front walkway. Finally, fungicides are used to kill fungi as fungi can cause the plant to mold, rot, or even have diseases. So as you can see these different chemicals are helpful for protecting the plants but are not helpful for human consumption.
Even if you exclusively purchase organic food you are still consuming heavy metals. Organic does not mean none, it means less. This does not however mean organic foods are harmful. So as you can see, exposure to these toxins are unavoidable, even with organic foods. Luckily, our bodies are prepared with our very own built-in detoxification enzyme systems. Our bodies when faced with toxic metals, will eradicate these toxins through different systems such as sweat, urine, and feces. The healthier the body is, the more toxins it can flush out. This is evident all over the world. Let’s take California as an example. California holds the famous Hollywood industry that includes world-recognized beautiful, healthy people yet California has an enormous amount of air quality warnings each year.
So how do you avoid these heavy metals? Well, the harsh reality is, you can’t -- but you can control them! For the purpose of this article I will focus on supplements as there is a lot of controversy on quality and safety of different supplements.
Many dietary supplements enter the market at a very fast pace claiming to have the purest, safest, and highest quality of ingredients on their labels. Unfortunately several reports suggest otherwise, leading consumers to be concerned -- as they should be.
The National Sanitation Foundation or more commonly known as NSF is an independent international testing standard and product certification program strictly for dietary supplements. Athletes spend a lot of time, money, and energy pushing their bodies to their limits to be their best and cannot afford to have these toxic metals in their body. When these athletes need to purchase supplements, NSF Certified for Sport helps them make a safe decision.
In order for a product to be NSF Certified for Sport it has to pass a number of qualifications including but not limited to: zero unsafe levels of contaminants, the contents must match exactly what is printed on the label, must not contain any of the 270+ substances banned by major athletic organizations, and must be manufactured at a safe facility that is registered and audited twice annually for quality and safety assurance. NSF Certified for Sport also ensures products pass the aforementioned Prop 65 regulation.
Athlete’s put a lot of work into their bodies and need to trust their supplements to be the highest quality of ingredients, safe, and truthful to their label. What is amazing about NSF is they do blind testing where they purchase the supplements off the shelf and check for safety and quality assurance. There is no doubt our world has been corrupted with these harsh heavy metal chemicals due to our human activities, but with the help from third party testing such as NSF, we can feel confident buying products off the shelf that we know are safe and will benefit our bodies, not harm them.