The Diet Detective: Food concerns that matter

Methylmercury in fish poses a threat to the developing nervous system of unborn children, infants and young children.
There are many fad food scares out there; some, however, are more valid (and scary) than others. Here's the rundown on a few that experts think we should be concerned about.

 

Food-borne illness

What it is: Food poisoning is the result of eating organisms or toxins, such as the bacteria E. Coli and salmonella, in contaminated foods. Symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea (sometimes bloody), fever and chills, weakness and headache, usually begin two to six hours after eating, although they can begin sooner or as long as several days later.

E. coli is naturally found in the intestinal tract of animals. Fecal contamination of foods is the normal route through which it gets to humans. Although E. coli O157:H7 is the most common, it's just one of hundreds of strains that cause everything from travelers' diarrhea to kidney and organ failure.

Salmonella, also of fecal origin, is one of the leading causes of bacterial food-borne illness. "Raw meat, poultry and seafood present the greatest risk," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "However, outbreaks have also been linked to fruits and vegetables."

How you get it: Often during communal meals -- at social gatherings like picnics or potlucks, in restaurants and large cafeterias -- cooking and food-handling procedures are unsanitary and/or food is left out for prolonged periods of time, which allow the bacteria to grow to dangerous levels.

Why it matters: "There are 76 million cases of food-borne illness reported a year, with 5,000 resulting in death," says Smith DeWaal. "Your risk of dying is low, but your risk of getting sick is one in four. Sickness is very painful and results in doctor visits, lost work and extreme discomfort." Symptoms usually resolve in 12 to 60 hours.

Risk level: Moderate.

How to avoid it: Sam Beattie, Ph.D., food safety extension specialist at Iowa State University offers these tips:
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
  • Prevent cross contamination -- don't let raw meat, fish or poultry touch foods that won't be cooked, such as lettuce. Never use the same knife or cutting board without washing it first.
  • Cook foods to proper internal temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats, pork; 170 for poultry breasts; 180 for whole poultry; 145 for whole cuts of meat; 165 for leftovers, casseroles and ground poultry.
  • Avoid temperature abuse. Keep it hot, keep it cold, and get it cold fast (to less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Pregnant women and children should be particularly careful to heat meats and poultry until steaming throughout and to avoid unpasteurized cheeses or cold smoked products.

More information: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~mow/intro.html

Antibiotics in food

What it is: Livestock often receive low-dose injections of antibiotics to make them gain weight faster and to prevent disease.

How you get it: The bacteria that the antibiotics are designed to kill may become resistant by the time they reach humans.

Why it matters: "Bacteria become resistant in the gut of the cow and then, if we become sick from that form of bacteria, we can't be treated with the antibiotic because suddenly we're dealing with resistant strains," says Smith DeWaal.

Risk level: Very low immediate risk. However it's a large, long-term potential public health risk.

How to avoid it: Buy meat and poultry labeled "raised without antibiotics" or "no antibiotics administered," which mean that the animal has not received any antibiotics.

More information: http://eco-labels.org/labelSearch.cfm?label=antibiotics&mode=view

Mercury in fish

What it is: Mercury is a trace element found in rocks that occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. In the water, it turns into methylmercury.

How you get it: By eating fish. According to the FDA and EPA, fish absorb methylmercury as they feed in these waters, so it accumulates in them. Mercury builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat.

Why it matters: Methylmercury poses a threat to the developing nervous system of unborn children, infants and young children. Fish provide many vital nutrients, especially omega-3 fats (a nutrient we aren't capable of producing on our own). Many fish are also high in protein and low in saturated fat. So, for adults who aren't pregnant and who will not become pregnant, most experts recommend eating fish, because the mercury doesn't pose a notable health risk and the nutritional benefits help protect against coronary heart disease and stroke.

Risk level: Very high for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and who eat the EPA/FDA noted contaminated fish.

How to avoid it: Mercury is most concentrated in predator fish, which eat smaller, mercury-infested fish. Fish with the highest mercury concentrations (according to the FDA and EPA) are shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Five of the most commonly eaten low-mercury seafood are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna, contains more mercury than canned light tuna.

Even women and young children can consume as much as 12 ounces of fish a week (about two meals) from the low-mercury category and remain below the exposure level of concern designated by the federal government.

More information: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html

  • See also: The Diet Detective: Fad food scares -- Myth or reality? (Part 1)

  • Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at www.dietdetective.com.

    Copyright 2006 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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