Friday, October 4, 2013

What's your poison? by Jerry Brainum

 In 2007, pet owners were horrified to learn that many commercial pet foods were contaminated. The culprit turned out to be malamine, a substance that was added to wheat gluten, a common ingredient in pet food. Metamine was surreptitiously added because of its rich nitrogen content (67%), and since protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, adding melamine to the food made it appear to be higher in protein that it actually was. This ingredient wasn't listed on pet food labels, but was added to the food by Chinese food processors. Sadly, many pets died from kidney failure after eating the contaminated pet food.    
     You might think that scenario is unlikely to occur in human food, but you’d be dangerously naive. In recent years several food supplements, mainly aimed at the bodybuilding market, have contained ingredients that weren’t listed on the labels. Analyses of several pro-hormone products showed that they contained not just pro-hormones but full-fledged hormones, including anabolic-steroid drugs. As the products were synthetic, the drugs had to be added.
     The good news is that nobody died from tainted supplements, although athletes may have failed drug tests. A few people who ingested the supplements suffered such problems as liver failure. Other supplements may contain ingredients that can lead to serious health problems.
       Take, for example, a reported case of arsenic poisoning in a 54-year-old woman who took kelp tablets.1 Kelp is a rich source of trace minerals, especially iodine. Two-thirds of thyroid hormone, which controls basal metabolic rate, is iodine. The other third is the amino acid tyrosine.In the ’60s and ’70s kelp was a popular supplement among bodybuilders. They had few choices when it came to fat-burning supplements, and the theory was that a daily dose of kelp would boost thyroid hormone production, thus helping burn excess bodyfat and increase overall muscularity. Some bodybuilders took 30 to 50 kelp tablets every day.
     What the bodybuilders didn’t realize, however, was that iodine worked in what statisticians call a bell curve. Simply put, while a certain amount of iodine is indeed required for thyroid hormone synthesis, too much of the trace mineral leads to a slowing of thyroid function, or hypothyroidism. Conversely, in those with pre-existing thyroid illness, it can cause overactivity of the thyroid, or hyperthyroidism. That’s been observed in cultures where forms of kelp are a food staple, such as in China and Japan. Fortunately, even though taking in large amounts of iodine shuts the thyroid down, the condition is reversible when people stop getting so much iodine.2
    The 54-year-old woman complained of hair loss, memory loss and fatigue. Doctors initially attributed her symptoms to menopause and adjusted her hormone supplements. The woman took various supplements to treat the symptoms, including kelp tablets, fish oil, ginkgo biloba and grapeseed extract, but the only supplement she used consistently was the kelp. It turned out that her symptoms emanated from arsenic poisoning.
    She began with two kelp tablets daily, then gradually increased the dose to four a day. In due course she developed additional symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea and vomiting and had pressure headaches, feeling as if there was a band around her head. Weakness and fatigue followed, requiring additional sleep. Within a few months she noticed a skin rash on her legs. Her toenails began falling out.
     Her doctor realized that her symptoms indicated toxicity, and a spot urine test showed an elevated arsenic level. Analysis of her food supplements revealed that the kelp tablets were rich in arsenic. As soon as she quit taking them, her symptoms abated, and eventually the arsenic disappeared from her body.
    Arsenic is a poison that’s found naturally in the environment and as a result of industrial contamination. Soils rich in arsenic can yield foods with higher content of the toxin. Because of the high concentration of arsenic in algae and microorganisms eaten by fish, seafood averages four to five parts per million compared to the 0.02 PPM found in grains and cereals, which is below toxic levels.
     The authors of the kelp case study purchased nine samples of kelp supplements from health food stores. Arsenic was detected in eight of them, and the concentration in seven exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s tolerance level of 2 PPM. As it happens, kelp isn’t that popular among bodybuilders these days.
    Then again, that may not help if you eat chicken. It seems that an arsenic compound called Roxarsone is mixed into the diet of about 70 percent of the 9 billion chickens produced annually in the United States.
 The intent is to promote growth, kill parasites that cause diarrhea and improve the pigmentation of the chicken meat. While relatively benign, Roxarsone converts in the chicken’s body to inorganic arsenic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic can cause bladder, lung, skin, kidney and colon cancers and adversely affects immune function, the nervous system and hormone release. Low-level exposure is linked to paralysis and diabetes.
    A 2004 report from the United States Department of Agriculture showed that most people eat 1.3 to 5.2 micrograms per day of inorganic arsenic from chicken alone. Those who eat large amounts of chicken (such as bodybuilders) consume 21 to 31 micrograms daily. An analysis of 151 samples of raw chicken obtained from markets in Minnesota and California revealed that 55 percent contained inorganic arsenic ranging from 1.6 to 21.2 PPM. Three-fourths of the samples taken from conventional poultry farms showed detectable levels of arsenic, but only one-third of samples from certified organic and premium farms had detectable levels. Chickens from Tyson and Foster Farms, which had both stopped adding Roxarsone to chicken feed, had no arsenic. The doctor who released the report commented, “As a physician, I find it ludicrous that we continue feeding arsenic to chickens now that we know it increases our cancer risk and is unnecessary for raising chickens.”
   The National Chicken Council responded by saying that the report wasn’t “scientific” and that there was no reason to fear the use of arsenic-based feed additives. Chickenspeak translation: “Pluck you!”

1 Amster, E., et al. (2007). Case report: Potential arsenic toxicosis secondary to herbal kelp supplement. Environ Health Perspect. 115:606-608.
2 Kasagi, K., et al. (2003). Effect of iodine restriction on thyroid function in patients with primary hypothyroidism. Thyroid.
3 Hileman, B. (2007). Arsenic in chicken production. Chem Engin News. 85:34-35.


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