Heavy Metals in Food: Here Is What to Do

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Blog, General Wellness, Heavy Metal Toxicity

You may know that you need to be careful with heavy metal contamination in tap water, paint, or dental fillings. But did you know that heavy metals may be hiding in your food? This may be surprising, but it’s true. Heavy metals may find their way into your food from soil, water, pesticides, processing, and packaging. 

So what can you do about it? In this article, I want to talk about toxic heavy metals in food. You will learn about what foods you need to avoid and what to do instead. I will also offer some strategies to reduce and improve problems related to heavy metal exposure naturally.

What Are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals, or toxic metals, are natural materials that offer no benefits for the human body. On the contrary, they can have adverse effects on our environment and living organisms, including your body. They can interfere with normal biological processes. They may bind to proteins in your body that, under normal circumstances, would be activated by beneficial minerals, such as magnesium or zinc. They may increase oxidative stress and inflammation and result in chronic symptoms (1).

Problem with Heavy Metals in Foods

Finding metals in food is nothing new. After all, these are natural elements that can make it into plant-based foods from the soil, dust particles, irrigation, and other processes. However, some trace elements, including trace metals, can benefit the human body. Toxic metals, on the other hand, can harm you. Unfortunately, toxic metals making their way into our food supply are on the rise and may pose a serious health concern (2, 3).

Common Heavy Metals in Food

Before I talk about specific foods high in heavy metals, I want to talk about specific toxic heavy metals in food:

  • Arsenic (As): Arsenic is commonly added into soil, water, and ground sediment through various industrial and agricultural practices. Arsenic may occur in both inorganic and organic forms, inorganic posing a greater public health concern. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen and allergen that may lead to skin redness, swelling, discoloration, lesions, and warts. It may increase the risk of inflammation, mitochondrial damage, neuropathy, diabetes, premature birth, fetal mortality, memory issues, bladder, liver, kidney, or other cancer. In food, arsenic may hide in apple juice, other fruit juices, drinking water, infant rice cereal, other rice products, and seaweed. According to current guidelines and regulations, arsenic from apple juice and drinking water should not exceed 10 parts per billion (ppb) and should not exceed 100 ppb in infant rice products (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
  • Cadmium (Cd): Cadmium may make its way into our soil, water, and air through mining, burning of coal, and household waste processing. Plants may also absorb it from the environment. It is in tobacco and contaminated foods, including bottled water, leafy greens, legumes, and grains. It may cause diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive issues, and lung problems when breathing it in.  It can increase the risk of poor calcium metabolism, kidney stones, kidney damage, and osteoporosis. It is also a probable carcinogen, increasing your risk of cancer (4, 9, 10, 11).
  • Lead (Pb): Lead can be found in contaminated soil and water. It can be found in old water pipes, industrial paint, ceramics, and caulking. Exposure to lead may increase premature birth, brain damage in developing babies, and nervous system issues. It is also a known carcinogen. Exposure to lead increases the risk of digestive issues, fatigue, headaches, brain fog, mood disorders, and poor fetal development,  According to current regulations, lead should not exceed 5 ppb in drinking water, 50 ppb in fruit juice, and 0.1 ppm in candy given to young children. If your home is impacted by lead, it is important to test your soil and water for lead if you are growing an edible garden (4, 12, 13, 14).
  • Mercury (Hg): Mercury is one of the most dangerous toxic heavy metals. Dental amalgam fillings are a common cause of mercury exposure. Among foods, certain seafood (e.g., shark, tuna, swordfish) are a common risk factor for mercury exposure.  Mercury can increase oxidative stress, inflammation, headaches, weakness, fatigue, brain damage, neurodegeneration, liver damage, kidney damage, cardiovascular issues, and cancer (4, 15, 16).

Symptoms of Heavy Metal Accumulation

Symptoms of toxic heavy metal exposure, from food or other sources, may include:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia and sleep issues
  • Digestive issues
  • Brain fog and cognitive complaints
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Skin issues
  • Autoimmunity

Common Sources of Heavy Metal Exposure

We are all exposed to toxic heavy metals to a certain level. Exposure to toxic heavy metals doesn’t always mean you will end up with chronic symptoms or health issues. Health risks depend on the amount or length of toxic metal exposure, the specific metals involved in the exposure, your overall health, and your personal sensitivities. Bear in mind that we are not talking about acute poisoning here, but rather the effect of small amounts accumulated over a longer period of time due to repeated exposures.  This could occur, for example, due to eating contaminated fish every day, especially if you store the mercury in your tissues rather than eliminate it from your body.

However, each tiny exposure to toxic heavy metals adds up. Food is not the only source of toxic heavy metals. You need to be aware of other common sources of toxic heavy metals and avoid these sources as much as possible to reduce your risk of chronic symptoms of heavy metal exposure.  

Other sources of toxic heavy metals excluding food:

  • Lead paint dust, mainly in older buildings built before 1978
  • Water contamination from old pipes or groundwater contamination
  • Air pollution
  • Industrial manufacturing and occupational exposure
  • Non-organic fertilizer usage on crops
  • Dental mercury amalgam fillings and unsafe removal of these fillings
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Unsafe coatings in cookware and food containers
  • Certain cosmetics, hair dyes, and other beauty products
  • Certain medications and herbal supplements

How Do Toxic Heavy Metals Get Into Your Food and Water?

There are a variety of contaminants that can make their way into our food and water systems. Insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses are natural contaminants that may affect your food and water. Pesticides, pollutants, and unwanted by-products from cooking or manufacturing are human-made contaminants that can affect your food and water. Toxic heavy metals and other harmful elements are human-introduced natural contaminants that can make their way into our food and water supply through the soil and farming practices. If there are elevated amounts of toxic heavy metals in the growing, processing, and manufacturing environment, they can get into your food or water.

Let me be clear, food manufacturers do not add heavy metals to your food. Heavy metals are not food ingredients. Heavy metals can be found in the soil, water, and air where plants grow. Certain vegetables, fruits, and grains can easily absorb toxic heavy metals and affect your health when eating them. Even organically grown, non-GMO crops are not safe and may be contaminated by toxic heavy metals (17, 18).

Why Do Crops Absorb Heavy Metals?

Our crops grow in soil. They use carbon from our air and water to grow and thrive. Unfortunately, if our soil, air, and water all contain toxic heavy metals from natural sources and industrial practices, our crops can absorb these metals and harm your health.

Some plants are more prone to absorbing toxic heavy metals than others. For example, rice has a great ability to absorb arsenic, lettuce and onions are more likely to absorb lead more readily, and carrots and spinach can absorb cadmium more easily.

This means that you don’t have to worry about all food. Some foods are at a higher risk of having high toxic heavy metals than others. This also depends on the area where they were grown and manufacturing processes, which you can’t always have an insight into. While there is always a low level of risk, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a hazard to your health.

What About Regulations?

Current Good Manufacturing Practices help to keep our water and food safe, at low level of heavy metals (no heavy metals is nearly impossible) (19). The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),  the Canadian Government, other governmental bodies, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have strict guidelines for the allowable limits of heavy metals in your food and drinking water (20, 21, 22). 

However, the regulatory systems still don’t have robust enough guidance to regulate final food products, especially when it comes to overly processed food products. It’s important that you are aware of foods that are higher risk and be careful, especially if you are dealing with chronic health issues, chemical sensitivities, mast cell activation issues, or other health concerns.

Foods to Avoid & What to Choose Instead

So what high-toxic heavy metal foods should you avoid? And what can you eat instead? Let’s get into it. 

Fish

Fish and seafood have many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and clean protein. However, certain fish may contain high levels of toxic heavy metals. This may be particularly risky for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as they can pass on heavy metals to their babies (23). 

Mercury hasn’t been found unsafe in all fish, though. Larger fish, including shark, swordfish, halibut, sea bass, tuna, and marlin, usually have higher quantities of toxic heavy metals. Small fish, including sardines, mackerel, and anchovies, tend to be lower in heavy metals and safer for your health (24).

What to eat instead: If you do eat fish, choose lower-mercury fish and seafood, including salmon, trout, tilapia, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, cod, sole, shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish are also low-mercury. For non-seafood protein options, choose grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, wild game (unless hunted with lead shot), pasture-raised eggs, nuts, and seeds.

Bone Broth

Bone broth became very popular in recent years for its ability to reduce inflammation, improve gastrointestinal health, and nourish your skin. Unfortunately, animals used for bone broth may be exposed to lead or other heavy metals. According to a 2013 study published in Medical Hypotheses, bone broth made from organic chicken may have a high concentration of lead compared to water boiled in the same cookware (23).

What to eat instead: I’m not saying you need to avoid bone broth completely. I recommend consuming it in moderation and avoiding it if you are sensitive or you have heavy metal-related issues already. You may try vegetable broth instead. 

Rice

Rice is an incredibly common and cheap staple. Unfortunately, rice has an excellent ability to absorb arsenic from pesticide-treated soil, irrigation water, or cooking water. Thus, eating rice may increase your risk of heavy metal toxicity. There have been reports regarding the risk of baby food high in heavy metals, generally from rice (24).

What to eat instead: According to the FDA, barley, multigrain, and oats are preferred nutritional sources over rice formulas (25). If you are consuming rice, sushi rice from the US and basmati rice from California, Pakistan, and India have much lower amounts of inorganic arsenic than other forms of rice. Amaranth, buckwheat, polenta, millet, and cauliflower rice may also be great options instead of rice. Bulgur, barley, and farro are also lower in arsenic. However, they contain gluten, which may cause sensitivities, inflammation, and chronic symptoms (26).

Poultry

Poultry may be a good source of lean protein, but it is not without risks. Chicken, turkey, and other poultry are often given feed that is high in arsenic-containing drugs or other heavy metals. This can lead to contamination and poultry on your table high in heavy metals. According to a 2020 study published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, the highest level of heavy metals was recorded in the flesh of the chest followed by the stomach. The flesh of the legs and heart had lower levels of arsenic (27).

What to eat instead: Choosing pasture-raised organic poultry may reduce your risk of heavy metal contamination from arsenic-treated feed. If you are eating chicken or poultry, consuming the legs or heart over the chest and stomach may be safer. Grass-fed beef and wild game ((unless hunted with lead shot) may also be great clean animal protein options.

Certain Greens and Vegetables

Certain leafy greens and vegetables may also be high in toxic heavy metals. We discussed earlier that certain plant food absorbs heavy metals more readily than others. Lettuce and onions are more likely to absorb lead more easily. Carrots and spinach can absorb cadmium more readily. Sweet potatoes and root vegetables are also at higher risk of heavy metal contamination. Many dried herbs and spice brands may also be high in heavy metals (28, 29, 30).

What to eat instead: Choose greens and vegetables that are lower in heavy metals. Mix up your diet. Unless you are sensitive, you may still eat spinach, carrots, or other higher-risk foods, but don’t eat them every day. Mix it up and eat the rainbow instead.

Chocolate, Tea, and Coffee

Unfortunately, chocolate, tea, and coffee may be on the list of foods high in heavy metals. According to a 2023 report, Consumer Reports has found some levels of heavy metals in all 28 different types of chocolate bars they tested (31). Some brands had lower levels of heavy metals than others. The same goes for coffee and tea, they can be contaminated with heavy metals too (32, 33). 

What to eat instead: Eat chocolate in moderation only. It shouldn’t be part of your diet. You may look at this publication, Consumer Reports to see what options are lower in heavy metals. Choose those over higher-risk options. Drink coffee in moderation. Choose herbal tea over black or green tea.

Beer and Wine

Beer and wine consumption may also increase your risk of heavy metal exposure due to filtration materials and production. According to a Dartmouth study, people who had 2.5 beers per day had 30% higher arsenic levels, and those who drank 5 – 6 glasses of wine per week had 20% higher arsenic levels than non-consumer (34). 

What to drink instead: Reducing your beer and wine consumption may reduce your risk of heavy metal exposure. Avoiding drinking altogether is, of course, the best option. Drinking spirits (in moderation only) over beer or wine may be safer in terms of heavy metals. They also tend to be lower in histamine!

Other Things to Avoid

There are also some other foods and food additives that may be high in heavy metals but may also be highly inflammatory and overly processed. These foods and foods containing these additives should be avoided regardless of heavy metal levels, including (35, 36, 37, 38):

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Food coloring
  • Food from crops using non-organic fertilizers

What to eat instead: Consume unprocessed whole foods. For sweeteners, choose honey, maple syrup, molasses, dates, or coconut sugar. For oil, choose extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Avoid food coloring and other additives. Avoid overly processed foods. Choose organic foods to avoid contamination from non-organic fertilizers. Remember, though, organic doesn’t always mean free from heavy metals! It simply reduces fertilizer-related risks. Crops can still be irrigated with toxic metal-contaminated water.

Strategies to Improve Issues Related to Heavy Metal Exposure

Completely avoiding heavy metals is impossible. Your risk of health issues depends on a variety of factors, including the level and length of exposure and your personal health. Here are some of my tips to reduce your risk of health issues related to heavy metals and improve symptoms of heavy metal-related issues.

Reduce Your Risk of Heavy Metal Exposure

To reduce your risk and improve your symptoms of heavy metal exposure, you need to reduce your exposure to heavy metals. Consume foods low or free from heavy metals. Check your home and ensure there is no lead hiding in the paint, dust, or pipes. Visit a biological dentist to remove any dental amalgam fillings and take chlorella and perhaps intravenous nutrients to support detoxification post-procedure. If you are at a high-risk job for heavy metal exposure, you may consider switching to a safer job, or if not possible, wearing protective gear and boosting detoxification. Choose purified water over tap water. Avoid smoking cigarettes and second-hand smoke.

Consume Foods That May Help to Counteract Heavy Metals

Following a nutrient-dense whole foods diet is critical. But you may be more strategic by adding specific foods that may help to remove and counteract heavy metals. You may learn more about this in this article. In summary, the following foods may help to counteract heavy metal exposures:

  • Sulfur-rich foods: Cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and onion are examples of sulfur-containing foods which can help in the process of detoxification.
  • Foods high in vitamin C: Oranges, strawberries, grapefruit, kale, and red peppers can help to reduce the toxic effects of heavy metals owing to their high vitamin C content.
  • Pectin-rich fruits and vegetables: Pectin is a soluble fiber found in pears, green apples, citrus fruits, cabbage, beets, and carrots. Pectin has been found to increase heavy metal excretion.
  • Foods containing amino acids: Amino acids are considered natural chelating agents and can be found in corn, whole grains, spinach, carrots, turnips, plums, grapes, and pomegranates.
  • Foods rich in iron: The combination of iron deficiency with lead exposures is not a good one. Iron rich foods include red and organ meats are the best sources.

Support Detoxification

If you want to improve heavy metal exposure, you need to support your body’s natural detoxification pathways. Hydrate your body with lots of purified water to support detoxification through urine and sweating. Support sweating by exercising your body, using your infrared sauna, and spending time outside in the sun when it’s warm outside. Support liver and kidney detoxification by eating grapefruits, prickly pear, cranberries, other berries, and olive oil. Using toxin binders, such as activated charcoal cautiously, can help to remove toxic heavy metals and other toxins.

Try n-acetyl cysteine, glutathione, and other liver-friendly herbs to support liver cleansing and detoxification. Support your lymphatic system through rebounding, exercise, and dry brushing. Support your gut with daily probiotic supplements and foods rich in pre and probiotics. 

Try Supplements to Reduce The Effects of Heavy Metal Exposure

You may also try some supplements to support detoxification from heavy metals, reduce the effects of heavy metal exposure, and reduce your risk of heavy metal exposure and related issues. Here is what I recommend:

  • Activated charcoal is a fantastic toxin binder for removing toxic heavy metals from your body (39). 
  • Glutathione may help to support detoxification and lower oxidative stress, cellular damage, and the risk of various health issues (40, 41).
  • N-acetyl cysteine can be a great antioxidant for supporting liver and kidney detoxification (42).
  • Vitamin C may support detoxification and is excellent for cellular and immune support (43).

Next Steps

Food is not the only source of heavy metal exposure. Municipal tap water, dental amalgam fillings, old paint, and other sources may increase heavy metal exposure If you are dealing with symptoms from heavy metal exposure, I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article. 

If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.

 

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