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Hot Topics: Antioxidants/"Superfoods", Detox, Organic, GMOs

Today's hottest health trends seem to promote being 'as healthy as possible' in addition to a fear against anything that is perceived as 'unnatural'. However the primary source of negative connotations around certain food choices is from a lack of knowledge, and therefore a fear built out of ignorance. How many times have you come across the advice:

"Don't eat anything you can't pronounce"

"If the ingredients are long words, or words with numbers, chances are it's not natural and you should avoid it"

or my personal favorite: "Don't eat anything with chemicals!"

Well guess what; EVERYTHING is made of chemicals, from plants to animals, air, water, and everything in between. We cannot have biology without chemistry. **The term 'chemicals' is often misrepresented to designate toxic compounds that we would typically think of like the ammonia in bleach, or ethylene glycol in antifreeze. However it should be made clear that chemicals (think of the periodic table of elements) make up everything on Earth, so to follow the advice to 'avoid chemicals' is a bit short-sighted to say the least.

This brings us to the next point: long words, or words with numbers, or words you can't pronounce; those criteria do not automatically equate to a synthetic or toxic compound. The words you can't pronounce or words with numbers are simply the chemical name for something found in nature that is otherwise called something else. For example:

Would you eat something with ascorbic acid? I would hope so: ascorbic acid is the chemical name for vitamin C.

Would you be upset to know that you have 25-hydroxycolecalciferol in your system? I would hope not: it's the active form of vitamin D.

What if I described a food as containing ovalbumin, ovomucoid, ovomucin, lysozyme, avidin, ovoglobulin, ovoinhibitor, lipoproteins, lipovitellins and more: would you know that I was describing an egg?

...and what about the longest word you will likely ever read: cyclopentanoperhydrophenathrene

That's either gibberish or some type of crazy ingredient in a "Franken-food", right? No, It's actually the base structure for your steroid hormones (cortisol, aldosterone, sex hormones).

The point is: do not judge something as being inherently bad based solely on the fact that you are unfamiliar with it. Everything is made of chemicals and everything has a chemical name (you can't have biology without chemistry!) But to push generic advice to avoid chemicals or ingredients you don't recognize is really just a way to instill fear out of ignorance.

Now, continuing on with a look into trends that are based on fear-mongering tactics, we can see that there is a clear push towards being 'as healthy as possible' through measures like trying to increase antioxidant intake (through foods or supplements), praising 'superfoods' as being the best of the best for healthy food options, efforts to 'detox away' any 'harmful agents', claims that organic foods are healthier for you than conventional, and of course the claims that GMOs are detrimental to health (because of...chemicals).

Before we dive in to the major arguments, I just want to quickly review over what micronutrients are as they are the primary driver behind these theories of 'being as healthy as possible'. Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals (as well as other phytochemicals) that are present in foods but in comparatively smaller amounts versus the macronutrients. The major difference between the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is the relative amounts that each is required (and provided) in our nutrition where macronutrients are provided and needed in larger amounts compared to the micronutrients which are provided and needed in comparatively smaller amounts. As well, the macronutrients can directly contribute to energy production in the body (as a fuel source/ they provide calories) whereas micronutrients offer indirect effects in energy production (and are therefore non-caloric). These indirect effects include acting as cofactors for enzymes in most of the metabolic processes that take place in the body. (Think of an enzyme as a required tool to make a reaction happen, and the cofactor is like the missing puzzle piece to that tool: i.e. you need the enzyme to make the chemical reaction occur, and the enzyme needs the cofactor present). It is to this effect that ALL of the nutrients (macro and micro) are REQUIRED for adequate and optimal functioning and to where deficiencies in any can be associated with specific complications. **I will not go into detail here about all of the micronutrients or the immensely long list of actions that the micronutrients play in the body, but just know that a deficiency in one can lead to a host of problems. In future posts I will address specifics like the role of vitamin C with connective tissue and bruising, etc.

So how do I get these micronutrients?

The micronutrients are found in appropriate amounts in all whole foods (go figure!) like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fresh meats and seafood, etc. (Gropper, et al. 2013) Some foods have been enriched with micronutrients (added back in after the refining process) while other foods have been fortified (micronutrient added to a food that it is not normally present in) as a means of addressing potential deficiencies within the population. (Gropper, et al. 2013)*Iodized salt is a perfect example of a fortified food where iodine (a mineral we need for thyroid hormone production) was added to table salt as a way to counter iodine deficiency and goiter (enlarged thyroid gland; hypothyroidism) that was prevalent in the US at one point in time (due to low dietary iodine intake). Normally iodine is found in foods like seaweed and fish, but in populations where these foods are not dietary staples, obtaining iodine from iodized salt has shown to be effective in decreasing iodine deficiencies and prevalence of goiter. (Gropper, et al. 2013)

and you may have heard this rumor...

There are claims that due to overuse, crop soil is being depleted of nutrients leading to declines in micronutrient content of foods. However study findings suggest negligible effects on soil mineral concentration and subsequent food nutrient composition to where there are no nutritional consequences associated with high crop yields. (Marles, 2017) What does this mean? Despite using soil for high crop yields, there is no significant evidence that mineral composition of fruits, vegetables, and grains are declining, and where an appropriate and balanced dietary intake is proposed to be sufficient to meet our needs. (Marles, 2017)

What about taking a multivitamin?

Multivitamin supplements are popularized as being a tool to fill in any nutritional gaps from dietary intake and where study findings suggest that while there is no evidence of harm in taking a multivitamin supplement, caution must be placed in those who are at risk for vitamin toxicities. (Ward, 2014) Yes, some vitamins and minerals can be toxic in conditions of excess or malabsorption (high vitamin A can be associated with birth defects, high iron or copper can be toxic, etc) and so the use of a multivitamin should not be a blanketed statement suitable for everyone. (Gropper, et al. 2013) Furthermore, a multivitamin supplement should not be relied upon as the sole contributor for micronutrients as there can be low bioavailability and absorption compared to the whole food alternatives. **In my opinion, multivitamin supplements should be thought of as a 'supplement' to the diet where food comes first, and then the possible addition of a multivitamin, particularly for those with increased needs like increased energy demands in athletes, illness, injury repair, growth, etc.

Which brings us to antioxidants...

Antioxidants are specific micronutrients (for example Vitamins A, C, E, selenium, zinc, carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and more) that act in the body to eliminate free radicals. (Gropper, et al. 2013) Free radicals are unpaired electrons that are highly reactive (can cause cellular damage) and are a normal result from oxidation reactions. (Gropper, et al. 2013) Oxidation reactions are also a normal part of metabolism (you oxidize glucose for fuel constantly) and so we all create free radicals as a natural response to our properly functioning metabolic processes. Due to this normal free radical generation, we also have an innate system to control and eliminate free radicals from causing cellular damage through compounds like glutathione (with vitamin C, E and selenium), superoxide dismutase (with copper, zinc, and manganese) and more. (Gropper, et al. 2013) The antioxidants often act by donating an electron to the unpaired electrons of the free radicals, thus turning themselves into free radicals, but then being regenerated (combining unpaired electrons together). (Gropper, et al. 2013) All you need to understand is this: antioxidants sacrifice themselves to eliminate free radicals by turning into free radicals themselves, and then combining together to neutralize (cancel out for unpaired electrons).

Having an adequate intake of the antioxidants is therefore crucial, but by eating colorful vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fresh meats and seafood as a part of your normal diet, it is likely that you are meeting your needs for antioxidants. (McArdle, et al. 2013) Additional antioxidants may be needed for individuals under high amounts of oxidative stress (like in athletes, in illness, smoking, etc) due to a higher oxidative demand placed on the body, and thus higher generation of free radicals as a natural byproduct. (Gropper, et al. 2013) However, supplementation is not necessarily associated with improvements in reducing free radicals, but rather just increasing serum concentrations of the antioxidants (and therefore increasing risk for adverse reactions like increased free radical formation from the antioxidants themselves). It is instead proposed to increase intake of antioxidant rich foods (like vegetables, fruits, etc) as there is a higher bioavailability coming in the whole food form (in addition to other phytochemicals present in plants) and in physiologically appropriate amounts. (Bouayed and Bohn, 2010) Adverse effects of high amounts of exogenous (supplemental) antioxidants are noted for cases like smokers, who require additional vitamin C because of the extensive oxidative damage that takes place, but where the addition of high dose antioxidants can have the reverse effect and increase their oxidative damage. (Bouayed and Bohn, 2010) This may occur because the antioxidants turn into free radicals themselves. Therefore, with a high dose of antioxidants in a highly oxidative environment, there is undoubtedly an increased risk for more cellular damage than without supplementation. Translation: too much is not only NOT better, but can actually do more harm than good. Stick to whole foods as your primary source of antioxidants.

What about 'Superfoods'?

Superfoods are a trendy term typically used to describe foods that may be naturally higher in antioxidants. (Groeniger, et al. 2017) Foods like spelt, quinoa, exotic fruits like pomegranate, goji berries, acai and more are being marketed as 'superfoods', however, the term itself is nothing more than a marketing term and it is not nutritionally relevant nor is there any formal classification for 'superfoods'. (Groeniger, et al. 2017) Due to this lack of classification and nutritional relevance, there is a lack of scientific evidence that looks at the effects of so-called 'superfoods' compared to equivalent alternatives, but rather study results that show trends of purchases of 'superfoods' highest among the higher socioeconomic populations. (Groeniger, et al. 2017) Again, as there is no formal classification of superfoods, there is NO evidence that these foods (or any foods labeled 'superfoods') are actually 'healthier' than other equivalent foods. **If someone wants to eat a meal that is 'packed with superfoods' then by all means, have at it. Just know that the term 'superfoods' does not designate superiority in nutrition, but rather a marketing term to increase sales. I could technically advertise a ham and cheese sandwich as a 'superfood' without any dispute as there is no formal classification for the term, nor nutritional relevance.

But eating organic food is healthier than conventional food, right?

First let's define what it means for a food to be labeled 'organic'. The description 'organic' is based on the manners, practices and substances that are allowed for producing, processing, and handling foods that carry the certified organic label. (Winter, 2006) U.S. regulation requires that certified organic foods be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, or genetic engineering. (Winter, 2006) This means that organic farmers must use methods like crop rotation, animal and crop wastes, botanical or biologic or non-synthetic pesticides, and where products labeled '100% organic' must contain all organic ingredients, products labeled 'organic' must contain 95% organic ingredients, and products labeled as 'made with organic ingredients' must contain 70% organic ingredients. (Winter, 2006) It should be noted that synthetic pesticides CAN be used for organic foods as long as they are from a pre-approved list that includes soap-based herbicides, water disinfectants, and insecticides with copper, lime sulfur, oils, and more. (Winter, 2006)

When comparing organic food to conventional...

There are study findings that show reduced concentrations of pesticide residues in organic food compared to conventionally grown food. (Winter, 2006) However when looking at pesticide intake among the population, the results suggest that the actual intakes of pesticides by humans are so low, that they are actually 10,000 times lower than levels that DO NOT cause toxicity, even in the most sensitive animals. (Winter, 2006) This means that in an animal species that is most sensitive to pesticides, when these sensitive animals are given pesticides daily for the course of their entire life and STILL not showing signs of toxicity, THAT amount that they have in their system is still 10,000 times MORE than what was observed in humans with normal dietary consumption. (Winter, 2006) Translation: eating foods, despite varying levels of pesticide residues in-vitro, is still FAR lower than any possible threshold for toxicity, regardless of whether it was organic or conventionally grown; the only proposed risk of pesticide toxicity is due to occupational hazards (the individuals who are actually working directly with pesticides regularly). (Winter, 2006)

But isn't organic food more nutrient-dense than conventional?

When it comes to crop foods (plant foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes) there is no evidence of significant and nutritionally relevant differences in nutritional quality between organic and conventionally grown foods. (Dangour, et al. 2009) According to this systematic review, organic and conventionally raised produce were comparable in nutrient content, despite claims that organic crop foods would offer higher nutrient content. (Dangour, et al. 2009)

There are some observed differences however when comparing organic to conventionally raised animal meats where the organic meats notably differ in their fatty acid content. (Srednicka-Tober, et al. 2016) According to this meta-analysis, there are a few studies that suggest decreased total fat content and an increased concentration of PUFAs (recall from the post on dietary fats), specifically the anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids, in organic meats compared to conventional meats. (Srednicka-Tober, et al. 2016) Notably this difference may be due to the feed (grass-fed ruminant animals compared to grain-fed) where the grass-fed or free-range animal meats showed the greatest differences in fatty acid content compared to conventional meats. (Srednicka-Tober, et al. 2016) *An important distinction must be made though where the label 'organic' is NOT synonymous with 'grass-fed' or 'free-range' but rather 'organic' denotes that it was raised without antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticides in the feed.

When it comes to antibiotics, it is suggested that wide-spread antibiotic use in livestock is associated with increases in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria for both animals and humans. (Landers, et al. 2012) Additionally, there is controversy surrounding the use of growth hormones in meat and dairy products where for example some studies show that increased concentrations of IGF-1 (a growth hormone factor) can be associated with health problems like an increased risk of cancer, while other studies show a lack of substantial evidence for risk of IGF-1 present in meat and dairy of cows treated with rBST. (Donovan, 2015) These contradictory study findings present a difficult argument in favor of either camp to where there is still a lack of sufficient data to make accusations of causal relationships. **In my opinion, if you want to decrease your intake of animals foods that are treated with antibiotics and hormones, there is certainly no harm in doing so. While there is not yet sufficient evidence to support a statement of safety or risk from consumption of these foods, there is certainly no harm in choosing the alternative options (in this case: organic would signify no antibiotics or growth hormones, while grass-fed would signify the feed provided and therefore a potential difference in fatty acid content).

But keep in mind...

Whether you would like to believe it or not, organic food (the organic food 'big business') is not all that different from the notorious 'big food' business where they are both large scale operations that try to obtain high product yields with minimal cost. *I know we would like to imagine that buying organic foods means that we are supporting smaller, local farms but in reality: that food was still produced in a large scale operation, and likely traveled thousands of miles to get to your grocery store. In my opinion, if you are choosing organic because you think you are reducing your carbon footprint, then instead of buying all 'organic' foods that traveled thousands of miles to get you, opt instead to support your local farmers, co-ops and small businesses.

...and what about GMOs?

Genetically modified foods have been created in response to questions of food sustainability and demand. Genetic modification of foods is most commonly seen where foods are cross-bred to obtain desirable traits (like tomatoes that can withstand a sudden freeze and therefore won't go bad with a change in the weather) or to withstand potential environmental contaminants (like surviving herbicide exposure to kill weeds, or pesticide exposure to kill pests) with the aim of providing high crop yields that are available to the population. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) Some other proposed uses for genetic modification of food crops includes resistance to viruses that could affect the crops, increasing content of certain micronutrients to address deficiencies in a population, plants being used for vaccines, plants that can yield crops years earlier than normal, and more. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) This essentially provides food for large numbers of people and with minimal risk of losing crops and money to circumstances like environmental exposures (weather changes, pests, weeds, etc).

The most common arguments against GM foods is that these are "unnaturally altered Franken-foods" that can lead to problems in the human body and increased risks to our health because we are not equipped to handle these genetic changes to our foods. HOWEVER, when it comes to looking at actual research findings regarding these claims of health risks, there is an underwhelming lack of evidence to suggest clear health risks. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) Much of the push for anti-GMO arguments or proponents of GMO labeling on foods are based on consumer perceptions of potential health risks, and not necessarily on actual evidence of health risks. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) Some of the public concerns are certainly valid like if there were cross-breeding with allergenic proteins, this could likely lead to increased food allergies in the population, or the evolution of 'superweeds' or 'superbugs' that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides, respectively, from overexposure in crop fields. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) There are even fears that genetic modification affecting DNA in food crops like activating or up-regulating genes could therefore pose a threat to human DNA, but again, this is all speculation and based on perceptions of proposed risks, but not based on actual study findings. (Sawa and Anilakumar, 2013) Translation: there is not yet any significant evidence of health risks associated with intake of genetically modified foods in humans.

So is there really a need to 'detox' all of these supposed 'toxins' in our diet?

You have undoubtedly come across some trend involving detox whether it be a detox drink or supplement, a detoxifying diet, a cleanse, fasting, etc. Some popular detox diets include the master cleanse (lemon, cayenne, water and syrup for 10 days), liver cleanse (low fat vegan diet for 8 weeks), various 21-day programs of supplements/shakes/pills/teas with minimal amounts of food, 3+ day juice cleanse (no food intake, only vegetable juices for at least 3 days) and many more. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) The premise behind these detox diet trends is that we are inundated with 'toxins' all the time, and thus helping your body to detox can create a healthier biological environment. (Take note though that the term 'toxins' is ill-defined but rather proposes a slew of possible compounds like drugs, alcohol, pollutants, synthetic compounds, heavy metals, processed foods, etc. Without a clear and quantifiable definition of 'toxins' it is hard to actually test the theories behind various diets/supplements.)

Now here is the major issue with this argument in favor of detoxing: YOUR BODY ALREADY DETOXES ITSELF all throughout the day and night. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) Your liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and lungs all work to eliminate potential toxins from your system. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) While there is evidence that substances that are not easily removed via these systems (like POPs/persistent organic pollutants, and heavy metals) can accumulate in adipose tissue, there is still NO scientific evidence to support the use of detoxifying substances, products, cleanses, detox diets, etc, as effective agents to remove stored toxic compounds. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) As well, this review suggests that the risk of accumulating toxins in your system is NOT likely through dietary intake, but rather increased exposure to industrial chemicals (flame retardants, paints, coolants, etc) and heavy metals (mercury, lead, arsenic, etc). (Klein and Kiat, 2014)

Before you believe the hype that you need to 'detox' after your holiday food choices...

Continue eating whole foods! Compounds in foods like malic acid (from grapes), citric acid (from citrus fruits), succinic acid (from apples and blueberries), citrus pectin (from the peel and pulp of fruits), chlorella (a green algae) and more, have been associated with chelating properties that can bind to toxins to aid in their removal from the body. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) Whole foods also provide water, fiber, and the other micro and macronutrients that the body requires for adequate metabolic functioning, which supports removal of toxins from the body.

What happens if you take in these compounds in the form of a supplement?

Detoxifying/eliminating those stored toxins involves not only their release from adipose tissue, but also their circulation in the bloodstream which can in essence pose a much worse risk to your health than simply having these toxins stored away. (Klein and Kiat, 2014) However with adequate nutritional intake to support metabolic and gastrointestinal functioning (like the water, fiber, micro and macronutrients from whole foods) your system is therefore better equipped to safely and effectively function (like the removal of potential toxins from the body) (Klein and Kiat, 2014) As well, supplements are NOT regulated in the U.S. which means that there is NO requirement for the product to be congruent with what is listed on the label (i.e. you have NO idea what you are actually buying). **In my opinion, don't buy into the hype that your holiday binge has led to a need to 'detox away your bad diet choices'. Simply continuing to eat real whole foods, ensuring adequate hydration and fiber intake, and maintaining an active lifestyle will allow your body to function appropriately and remove anything it needs to adequately.

Take from this what you will, but never stop learning.


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Donovan C. If FDA Does Not Regulate Food, Who Will? A Study of Hormones and Antibiotics in Meat Production. American Journal of Law and Medicine. 2015; 41(2)

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McArdle W, Katch F, Katch V. Sports and Exercise Nutrition. 4th edition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. Philadelphia, PA. 2013.

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Srednicka-Tober D, Baranski M, Seal C, et al. Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition. 2016; 115(6): 994-1011.

Ward E. Addressing nutritional gaps with multivitamin and mineral supplements. Nutrition Journal. 2014; 13:72.

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