Poisons in our food

Human exposure to food additives, pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics is widespread, chronic and silent. Lack of food safety, the economic interests of the industry, the impact of agrotoxics, processed foods and junk food in general can affect human health.

The 2018 report presented by Ecologists in Action based on official data collected in the 2015 Pesticide Residue Control Program, compiled by the Spanish Agency for Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Nutrition, confirms the presence of numerous pesticides in Spanish foods with the ability to alter our endocrine-hormone system.

Tania Mesa – Director of Neolife’s Nutrition and Nursing Unit

Alejandro Monzó – Nutrition Unit

We are suffering a silent poisoning that confirms the toxicity and lack of safety of the food industry

The term “Food Safety” encompasses aspects such as microbiology, residues, contaminants, additives (including nutrient enrichment), new foods (including those subject to genetic selection), new production techniques and new pathogens. Since absolute safety isn’t possible, it’s important to estimate the risk. The body responsible for ensuring food safety throughout Europe is the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), which needs to operate at the highest scientific level and take on functions of advice and risk estimation.

The latest reports confirm that Spain is the largest consumer of pesticides in Europe. Thousands of tonnes of pesticides sprayed each year on crops and plantations expose food to invisible pesticide residues that reach consumers directly(1).

The study carried out by Ecologists in Action focuses on pesticides, considered hormonal pollutants or endocrine disruptors (EDC), and analyzes the latest official data available on the presence of pesticide residues in food, corresponding to 2015 (Table 1). This report describes the pesticide residues found in food in Spain, and shows that the level of exposure of the population to these substances via food is, to say the least, worrying (1).

By definition, EDCs are a set of exogenous chemicals that interfere with the natural action of hormones, alter the hormone balance and can alter physiology throughout the life of an individual, from fetal development through to adulthood. For this reason, hormonal contaminants have been linked to important diseases such as damage to the reproductive system, different types of cancer, diabetes, obesity, cognitive or behavioral deficit, or neurological and cardiovascular disorders (1).

poisons in our food
Table 1. Results of analyzing residues of endocrine-disrupting pesticides in food in Spain. MRL: Maximum Residue Limit established as safe (1).

The available data from the program for controlling contaminants in food in Spain, corresponding to 2015, show that Spanish foods contain at least 38 pesticides with the capacity to alter the hormone system.

Foods such as peppers, tomatoes, pears, apples, oranges, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, among others, are those that are the most contaminated with endocrine-disrupting pesticides. All this implies the need for urgent measures to reduce exposure to these pesticides (1).

With regard to the report, of the total of 2,186 samples, 28 were from organic production (Table 1). Only 1 of the 28 samples had residues from an EDC pesticide. This data confirms that organic products contain hardly any pesticide residues. In short, foods labeled “BIO” or “ECO” meet the following standards (2):

  • They must not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • The use of synthetic pesticides is prohibited.
  • The use of soluble fertilizers of mineral origin is not allowed.
  • Pesticides cannot be used.
  • They must not have been subjected to ionizing radiation.
  • Up to 5% of food content prepared in a conventional manner is allowed.
  • The use of any substance to reinforce the flavor, artificial flavorings, colorants or emulsifiers is not allowed.

The European Regulation (396/2005) on pesticide residues in foods establishes the obligation to assess the combined effects of pesticide mixtures. However, the EFSA still doesn’t include them in its risk assessments, a situation that puts people’s health at risk, since there are no safe levels of exposure to this type of contaminant (1).

In addition, the rates of obesity, overweight and chronic noncommunicable diseases continue to increase worldwide. The food industry has power and economic influence, and manages to promote the consumption of foods and products that are often unhealthy. This is why the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a guide that reviews the 12 most dangerous additives found in our food (3,4):

  • Nitrates and nitrites: these salts are added to cured meat products and cheeses to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum. Dietary nitrates are reduced to nitrites by enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract, forming nitrosamines as the resulting product, a cancer-causing compound in animal models, but which has not been demonstrated to be carcinogenicity in humans.
  • Potassium bromate: used to increase and fortify the volume of bread and other foods made from wheat flour, such as cookies, is a substance with carcinogenic potential. It is not allowed in the European Union, but the United States still allows it to be added to flour.
  • Propylparaben: is a common preservative in foods such as tortillas, muffins and food coloring. It has been reported to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells, the deterioration of fertility in women and decreases in testosterone.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): these antioxidant preservatives present in potato chips, meats and processed foods in general may be endocrine disruptors and increase the risk of cancer.
  • Propyl gallate: used to preserve edible fats in sausages and lard. It is associated with estrogenic activity and endocrine alterations.
  • Theobromine: is an alkaloid that is found in chocolate and has effects similar to caffeine. It is used in breads, cereals and sports drinks It is considered safe by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but only at a level five times lower than people consume it.
  • Secret taste” ingredients: the term “natural flavor” can be found on many foods. This situation means that there is a legal vacuum that conceals health problems for people.
  • Artificial colorants are often used to increase the attractiveness of foods that have little nutritional value. Caramel colors III and IV may be contaminated with 4-MEI, a carcinogenic compound.
  • Diacetyl: used as a butter flavor in microwaved popcorn, has been associated with serious respiratory conditions.
  • Phosphoric acid/phosphates: Phosphates are the most common additives and are found mostly in processed foods such as pizzas and fast foods. They have negative effects on health, since high levels of phosphates in the blood are associated with cardiovascular diseases. They are not recommended in patients with chronic renal insufficiency.
  • Aluminum additives: used as stabilizers in many processed foods, have been associated with neurotoxic effects.
  • Monosodium Glutamate: this additive is noteworthy, a flavor enhancer used in soups, sauces, fries, frozen dishes and processed foods in general. It is a neurotoxin that damages the nervous system and over-stimulates the neurons. Its consumption is associated with side effects such as headaches, obesity, nausea, allergies, tachycardia and depression, among others.

Having arrived at this point, we can see that lack of food safety, the economic interests of the food industry, the impact of agrotoxics and processed foods and junk food in general can affect human health. We need to guarantee access to nutritious, quality food, provide food education and avoid the disproportionate use of harmful chemicals in agriculture.

Scientific evidence shows that the ecological stamp does not have to be indicative of a higher nutritional quality (5). However, of greater concern is the frequent use of antibiotics and hormones in conventional animal production as a key driving force for resistance to antibiotics and health problems in society. The use of antibiotics is less intensive in organic production.  Organic animal production can offer a way of restricting the risks posed by intensive production and even decrease the prevalence of antibiotic resistance (6).

Our goal is to improve health through nutrition. An approach based on real food, preferably of vegetable origin together with quality raw materials that are minimally processed. Our food is therefore the main route of exposure to the contaminants mentioned previously. Neolife offers you some tips and recommendations that can help reduce and minimize this exposure:

  1. Consume fresh fruit, greens and vegetables daily.
  2. Choose seasonal foods, without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which not only help our health but also nature.
  3. It’s a better idea to opt for any local product that stimulates local trade, respects the environment and takes into account the good condition of the animals.
  4. Choose to shop in markets and buy less from supermarkets and large corporations.
  5. Wash and peel all the fruit and vegetables you’re going to consume if they don’t have an ecological stamp. It’s very important to reduce exposure to the aforementioned toxicants.
  6. Decrease or eliminate food and ultra-processed products (pre-cooked foods, pizzas, potato chips, chocolates, pastries, cookies, processed meats, etc.).


(1) García K., Romano D. y Hernández K. (2018). “Directo a tus hormonas: guía de alimentos disruptores. Residuos de plaguicidas con capacidad de alterar el sistema endocrino en los alimentos españoles”. Ecologistas en Acción. Edición 2018, España. URL: https://www.ecologistasenaccion.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/informe-directo-a-tus-hormonas-2018.pdf

(2) Reglamento (UE) 2018/848 del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo, de 30 de mayo de 2018, sobre producción ecológica y etiquetado de los productos ecológicos y por el que se deroga el Reglamento (CE) n.o 834/2007 del Consejo. URL: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/ES/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32018R0848

(3) (2014). “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives”. Environmental Working Group. URL: https://www.ewg.org/research/ewg-s-dirty-dozen-guide-food-additives

(4) Figueroa B.E.G., Moya F.C.I. y Apesteguía, M.J.B. (2018). “Aditivos y coadyuvantes tecnológicos: ¿cuándo evitarlos?”. FMC-Formación Médica Continuada, 25(5), 295-301. URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1134207218300732

(5) Dangour A. y otros. (2009): “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(3), 680-685. URL: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/90/3/680/4597089

(6) Mie A. y otros. (2017). “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health, 16(1). URL: https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4?utm_source=sendinblue&utm_campaign=Newsletter_Dynamis_Novembre_2018&utm_medium=email