14 foods you should never eat
Disgusted by food?
What's the one food you refuse to eat? Peas, tofu, liver and onions? Whatever it is, it's probably because you don't like the way it tastes, not necessarily because it contains ingredients suspected of causing cancer or because it was picked by farmers wearing Hazmat suits. Yet, there are still a lot of those foods on store shelves, and food-industry insiders, who know what goes on behind the scenes, refuse to eat them. We polled some of those insiders—people who know the business and work daily to evict pesticides, genetically modified organisms, animal cruelty, social injustice, and unhealthy foods from the food supply—to find out what they know about the dark side of "convenience" foods and what they will eat. Take note so you, too, can avoid the worst of what grocery stores have to offer.
-- By Leah Zerbe and Emily Main
Philip Landrigan, MD, professor of pediatrics and professor and chair of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine
The Problem: One of Dr. Landrigan's No. 1 warnings to women pregnant or looking to become pregnant? "Make avoiding mercury in fish a priority," he says. Swordfish is notoriously high in the heavy metal, a potent neurotoxin that can damage developing children and even trigger heart attacks in adults. Aside from obvious health concerns, swordfish is often overfished and some of the gear commonly used to wrangle in swordfish often kills turtles, seabirds, and sharks.
The Solution: For a healthy omega-3 brain boost, look for fish that are low in contaminants and have stable populations, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, or pole- or troll-caught Pacific albacore tuna. Got a more adventurous palate? Try snakehead fish to satisfy your fish craving and improve the environment. The invasive species lives on land and water, where it wipes out important frogs, birds, and other critters. Snakehead fish is popping up on some restaurant menus, and the taste and texture is about identical to swordfish.
Robert Kenner, director of Food Inc. and founder of FixFood.org
The Problem: While filming Food Inc., Kenner says he wanted to film strawberry farmers applying pesticides to their fields. "The workers wear these suits to protect themselves from the dozens and dozens of known dangerous pesticides applied to strawberries," he says. "When I saw this, I thought to myself, if this is how berries are grown, I don't really want to eat them anymore. I haven't been able to eat a nonorganic strawberry ever since." Unfortunately, for the food-concerned public, he wasn't able to get the shot of these farmers. "I guess they didn't think it looked too appetizing."
The Solution: Opt for organic! The Environmental Working Group, which analyzes U.S. Department of Agriculture pesticide-residue data, has found 13 different pesticide residues on chemically grown strawberries.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, integrative health expert and founder of The Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center in Sebastopol, CA
The Problem: Dr. Eliaz stays away from any diet soda or foods, sugar-free candies, and gum containing artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K, and neotame, among others. "The safety data on these sweeteners is shrouded in controversy and conflicts of interest with the manufacturers of these chemical compounds," Dr. Eliaz warns. "Independent research strongly suggests that when metabolized in the body, these sweeteners can cause health-related issues and problems related to metabolism and weight gain, neurological diseases, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, chemical toxicity, and cancer, among others."
The Solution: If you're craving a soda but want to avoid the shady sweeteners, fake food dyes, and preservatives found in popular brands, try a bottle of Steaz zero-calorie green tea soda or Bionade, a fermented soda that's majorly popular in Europe.
Anything from McDonald's
Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer and author of This Ain't Normal, Folks
The Problem: McDonald's isn't just about food-it's about food mentality, according to Salatin. "It represents the pinnacle of factory-farming and industrial food," he says. "The economic model is utterly dependent on stockholders looking for dividends without regards to farm profitability or soil development."
Fast food typically is loaded with all sorts of the ingredients mentioned earlier in our list-genetically engineered corn, food dyes, artificial sweeteners, and other bad actors in the food supply. The type of farming that supports this type of food business relies on harmful chemicals that not only threaten human health, but also soil health.
The Solution: Learn to cook! You might be surprised to find that paying extra up front for a pasture-raised chicken can be cheaper than buying prepared fast-food chicken. For instance, cooking a chicken and then boiling down the bones for a rich, disease-fighting stock can yield up to three meals for a family! (Here's how to make homemade stock.) Find sustainable farmers at LocalHarvest.org.
Frederick vom Saal, PhD, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia
The Problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Studies show that the BPA in most people's bodies exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. "You can get 50 micrograms of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that's a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young," says vom Saal. "I won't go near canned tomatoes."
The Solution: Choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Eden Organic and Bionaturae. You can also get several types in Tetra Pak boxes, such as Trader Joe's and Pomi.
William Davis, MD, cardiologist and author of the New York Times best-seller Wheat Belly
The Problem: Modern wheat is nothing like the grain your mother or grandmother consumed. Today, wheat barely resembles its original form, thanks to extensive genetic manipulations of the 1960s and '70s to increase yields. "You cannot change the basic characteristics of a plant without changing its genetics, biochemistry, and its effects on humans who consume it," Dr. Davis notes.
In his book, Dr. Davis makes the case that modern-day wheat is triggering all sorts of health problems, everything from digestive diseases like celiac and inflammatory bowel disease to acid reflux, obesity, asthma, and skin disorders. "If there is a food that yields extravagant, extraordinary, and unexpected benefits when avoided, it is bread," says Dr. Davis. "And I don't mean white bread; I mean all bread: white, whole wheat, whole grain, sprouted, organic, French, Italian, fresh, day-old…all of it."
The Solution: Try eliminating bread from your diet for a few weeks to see if you note health improvements. When you do choose grains, look to things like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and wild rice, but in smaller quantities (less than a half cup) because these can also trigger high blood sugar, Dr. Davis says.
Industrially produced hamburgers
Michael Pollan, author of numerous books and articles on the food system including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules
The Problem: Cattle raised in filthy conditions, pumped full of growth hormones and fed diets composed mostly of genetically modified corn are three major reasons humane, grass-fed ground beef is a better alternative for your burger. But they aren't the only ones, says Pollan. While a steak or roast usually comes from a single animal, processors of ground beef combine meat from hundreds of animals. "This vastly increases the risk of contamination," he says. USDA scientists have found dangerous levels of disease-causing bacteria in over 50 percent of ground beef samples they've tested.
The Solution: "I love hamburgers, but only eat them when they're grass-fed and ground by a butcher," Pollan says.
Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, directors of the documentary Vanishing of the Bees
The Problem: Today's corn plants are more like little pesticide factories with roots. Most of the nation's corn supply is genetically engineered to either produce its own pesticide supply within the plant or withstand heavy sprayings of chemicals, which wind up inside of the food. That's problematic not just for bees, but for people, too. "I avoid corn because most is genetically modified, and on top of that, most of the seeds are treated with systemic pesticides that are killing our bees," says Henein. "And let's not be fooled—the sublethal effects of these pesticides also slowly impair our health."
The Solution: In one way or another, corn is present in the vast majority of processed foods. From ketchup to salad dressing, and even bread, it's hard to escape corn ingredients. One to look out for? "I always try to avoid foods containing high-fructose corn syrup," says Langworthy. "Not only is it unhealthy, but the pesticides used in the production of the corn is detrimental to honeybees and other pollinators."
To avoid genetically engineered corn, which has never been tested for long-term impacts on human health, choose organic or Non-GMO Verified foods.
Drew Ramsey, MD, assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and coauthor of The Happiness Diet
The Problem: The right kind of chocolate serves not only as a sweet treat but a brain-boosting superfood, too. The problem is, white chocolate's health profile is blank. "The data on the health benefits of cacao is pretty awesome," says Dr. Ramsey. "Much of this is due to a set of amazing phytonutrients that can increase blood flow to the brain, protect blood vessels, and boost mood and focus. White chocolate is missing all this goodness."
The Solution: Indulging in a chocolate treat? Look for organic versions from companies like Theo and NibMor.