Perils on your plate

December 20, 1999

BEWARE the perils on your plate this Christmas. Turkey, veg, stuffing and more besides are full of natural substances that give lab rats cancer, warn a group of New York scientists in a spoof Christmas menu which they have designed to ridicule scare stories about pesticide residues in food and posted on the Internet. But anti-pesticide campaigners have dismissed the menu as a cheap stunt.

According to the menu, roast turkey and beef contain natural heterocyclic amines, substances which trigger DNA mutations and cause cancer in rodents. Rats also develop cancer when fed with the dyestuff aniline, which occurs naturally in carrots.

But if you're feeling particularly brave, eat stuffing. There's a whole range of nature's nasties in the bread, onions, celery, black pepper and mushrooms that cause cancer or DNA mutations in rodents. The stuffing ingredients include acetaldehyde, a toxic breakdown product of alcoholic drinks, benzo[a]pyrene, a pot-ent carcinogen found in cigarette smoke, and ethyl carbamate, a natural pesticide.

"We try to get across that just because something is synthetic, it's not inherently any more dangerous than something Mother Nature puts there herself," says Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.

The New York-based council, set up in 1978 by scientists disturbed by media scare stories about pesticides, claims to be independent of its 300 diverse sources of funding and backs health campaigns it believes are based on sound science. It lost tobacco industry funding, for example, when it denounced smoking.

Kava says that on balance, the council thinks that health scares about pesticides in food are unjustified on scientific grounds. "It's an issue of dose and exposure," says Kava. "If you consume something that's a big hazard, such as benzene, but have small exposure, say 1 part per billion of benzene in your food every three months, there's not a very big risk," she says.

She calculates that you'd have to eat 82 600 slices of bread daily for life to consume the amount of the natural substance furfural found to cause cancer in lab rats. This means that very few rodent carcinogens turn out to be human carcinogens. Exceptions include natural substances such as aflatoxins, fungal contaminants of poorly stored nuts and spices.

Her team also warns that the risks from nature don't end with cancer. Potatoes contain the natural toxins solanine, arsenic and chaconine. Lima beans contain hydrogen cyanide, while carrots contain carototoxin, a nerve poison.

Campaigners against pesticides accept that some scare stories are unjustified, but see the spoof menu as dangerously unbalanced itself. "Most natural pesticides have been in the diet for millions of years, but DDT and the like have only been around for 50 years and we're still learning to cope with them," says Peter Beaumont, director of the British-based Pesticides Trust.

"Rubbishing the opposition is not balanced science."
UK CONTACT - Claire Bowles, New Scientist Press Office, London:
Tel: +44(0)20 7331 2751 or email

US CONTACT - New Scientist Washington office:
Tel: 202 452 1178 or email

Author: Andy Coghlan

New Scientist double Christmas issue: 25 December 1999/ 1 January 2000


New Scientist

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