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With Christmas and Hanukkah behind us, ‘tis the season to detox, destress and debloat. The old adage, "what goes up must come down," certainly applies to the end of the year. The highs of the holiday season are without a doubt followed by the lows of the manifestations of our overindulgences. New highs are bound to follow, but, for a time at least, they might be limited to the numbers on our scale.

With less than a week to go until 2023 chimes in, are there any among us who have sworn off holiday fare in favor of salads? Few of us take a break between Christmas and New Year’s to detox, instead choosing to start fresh on New Year’s Day.

It doesn’t take a scientific study to tell us that there’s benefit to dry January (although there is one). That same study, however, reveals more common sense when it unveils that planning to go without booze during the month of January almost undoubtedly makes us drink more than we would normally in December. I’m sure the scientists who conducted this study weren’t the only ones to utter a resounding "duhhh" at its outcome.

Toxic overload

Booze isn’t the only reason that many of us will focus on detoxing come the new year. Rich holiday foods, decadent parties, and meals and sweets galore will drive us to fast, diet, swear off foods (and drinks) and go sober until February. This kind of detox comes with the holiday territory and, for many of us, might be the low that accompanies the highs, but what happens when some of the healthy foods we turn to naturally contain toxins?

For once, I’m not talking about man-made toxins found in processed foods, like preservatives and chemicals. I’m not referring to food coloring or emulsifying gums. I’m not even talking about sugar. I’m referring to heavy metals. Though some metals like potassium, iron magnesium, sodium and copper are essential for our health, others can be toxic when overconsumed. Four heavy metals in particular — cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic — are showing up in healthy foods we eat, like grains and veggies, more and more often. With each news story, higher levels seem to be unavoidable.

It’s widely known that heavy metals, along with those essential for our existence, can be found in our food. We’ve been told to stay away from fish like tuna and swordfish, because of their high levels of mercury, just as we’re told to find extra calcium in milk. In 2012, Consumer Reports apprised us that dangerous levels of arsenic were present in our grains. The magazine updated its testing in 2014 and unveiled heavy metals’ presence in our spices in 2021.

These heavy metals occur naturally in our soil, so they’re bound to get into our food. Coupled with human environmental practices (hello, leaded gasoline), or the lack thereof, those levels are climbing. Arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium are the big four from which we should steer clear. The trouble is, it’s getting more and more difficult to do so. As our soil gets less and less healthy from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, its heavy metal load increases, which is absorbed by our food and ingested by us.

Not that long ago, there were reports of heavy metals in baby food, not only from their rice content, but from their choice vegetables, as well. My seven-year-old daughter was the one who apprised me that peas contained heavy metals. She had wondered if pencils still contained lead and asked good old Google. Instead of informing her that they are now made of graphite, they took her to a page imparting to her that the peas I always asked her to eat were filled with lead.

Not more than a few days after that, news spread that higher than desired levels of lead and cadmium had been found in chocolate bars (thank you, Consumer Reports). The truth is that they’re everywhere, albeit in lower concentrations, depending on the food, but they’re impossible to avoid while staying nourished. It’s not just the fruits, veggies and rice we eat. Livestock eat the same thing that we do, so they also ingest higher than desirable levels of heavy metals. Like humans, animals store lead in their bones. All the rage, bone broth and collagen are at risk to be contaminated by higher than desired levels of lead because of this, and there are no commercially available bone broths or collagen products that are tested for lead.

Currently, there is little heavy metal testing mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, though they have set limits for acceptable levels in our food. Unfortunately, organic products are not required to be any more stringently tested than conventional products, so there are few clues to help determine which spices and vegetables are lower in heavy metals.

What to do. Consumer Reports offers some of the following information ...

RICE

Choose white basmati rice from California or Southeast Asia, as it tends to be lower in arsenic. As its bran is removed, white rice retains less arsenic than brown rice does (though it’s missing some nutrients and fiber that brown rice has). When preparing rice, rinse well and soak it before preparing. Cook one cup of rice in six cups water to lower the arsenic levels.

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Other grains that are lower in arsenic than rice include amaranth, millet, quinoa, cornmeal and oats.

SPICES

Since spices and herbs are grown in soil, it’s no surprise that they, too, contain unacceptable levels of heavy metals. Those that are lower in toxic metals include black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds and white pepper. If those are too bland for you, don’t stop there; some brands have been found to be lower than others, and you can always establish a little window box herb garden. 

PEEL THOSE PEELS

Though root veggies tend to be higher in lead than some others, peeling and washing them can help reduce the lead load. 

WATER

Though community water systems typically have more oversight, the state of Vermont suggests testing spring and well water for lead every five years. You can obtain a testing kit for free on their website. Bottled water is the only drinking water that is regulated by the FDA for heavy metal levels.

CHOCOLATE

Interestingly enough, lead seems to accumulate on the outer shell of cocoa beans after harvesting. Researchers found lead levels to rise over the period of time that the beans dried in the sun, leading them to believe that lead-filled dust and dirt were landing on them while they dried. There’s talk of genetically modifying cocoa beans to absorb lower levels of heavy metals, but clearly that isn’t an immediate solution. The cleanest brands were found to be Mast, Taza, Valrhona and Ghirardelli, all of which were fairly low in both cadmium and lead. 

Low(er) levels

Though this is another lesson in moderation, as it is impossible to completely swear off foods that contain heavy metals (and would be ill advised,) foods like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, melons and strawberries absorb very little arsenic in the parts that we eat.

Get enough (non) heavy metals

Not all metals are created equal and some are essential for our existence. Since our body gravitates toward getting what it needs, when we are deficient in one metal, we can absorb more of the not-so-good ones in an attempt to find the ones in which we are devoid. Getting the right amount of calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamin C can keep our bodies from absorbing too much lead.

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram: @foodforthoughtwithkat.


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