Carcinogens Au Naturel?

By Lefferts, Lisa Y. | Nutrition Action Healthletter, July-August 1990 | Go to article overview

Carcinogens Au Naturel?


Lefferts, Lisa Y., Nutrition Action Healthletter


I don't believe anyone will ever die of pesticide residues from any food, anywhere."

Meet Robert J. Scheuplein, a senior toxicologist with the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with protecting our food supply from dangerous substances ... including pesticides. Scheuplein recently made headlines when he said that the risk from "natural carcinogens" in the food we eat overwhelms the cancer risk from additives, pesticides, and contaminants. Vegetables, grains, spices, even herbal teas-they're all loaded with chemicals that initiate the cancer process, says Scheuplein, who adds that lowering the risk from these carcinogens "would probably be enormously more useful to human health than... eliminating traces of pesticide residues or contaminants." Is he right?

Like dozens of newspapers across the country, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried an article last February 20 by the Associated Press.

"Natural carcinogens in meat, grain and other foods," it read, "are a far greater danger than pesticides and additives, accounting for more than 98 percent of the cancer risk in the diet, a government scientist said Monday." That scientist was Robert J. Scheuplein, who directs the FDA's Office of Toxicological Sciences at its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Scheuplein was addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Are pesticides, contaminants, and additives really insignificant compared to natural carcinogens? Probably not, despite what Scheuplein would have you believe.

And what about fat? Doesn't it play a role in the development of cancer?

Even Scheuplein thinks so. But he limited his analysis to substances that initiate, rather than promote the cancer process (as fat apparently does). Unfortunately, he never bothered to correct the newspapers when they blamed 98 percent of the cancer risk in the diet on natural carcinogens alone. Oops.

Another thing: Just because some isolated chemicals in our foods may cause cancer, there is no evidence that the foods themselves do. In fact, there is overwhelming data that eating a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, and fruits-many of which contain so-called "natural carcinogens"-can actually protect us from the disease. Scheuplein took an estimate of the risk of getting cancer from diet, and tried to see how much of that risk comes from carcinogens that occur naturally" in our food, and how much comes from synthetic chemicals like pesticides or animal drugs.

His conclusion: the risk from natural carcinogens is 10,000 times greater than the risk from pesticides or animal drugs. How did he come up with this number? By making three outrageous assumptions: * Assumption: We get 10,000 times more carcinogens from food than from pesticides or animal drugs. When people hear Scheuplein's estimates, they assume that he added up the risk of each natural carcinogen in one column and of each man-made carcinogen in another. Not true. He simply guessed that one-tenth of one percent of the 2.2 pounds of food we eat each day are natural carcinogens.

He had to guess, because nobody has a clue what the real percentage is. Even Scheuplein readily admits that "there is virtually no database worthy of the name on the daily intake of natural carcinogens."

Had he assumed that our intake was one-thousandth rather than one-tenth of one percent, for example, he would have concluded that pesticides and natural carcinogens in food pose the same cancer risk. * Assumption: No substances that are intentionally added to our food cause cancer. What about the artificial sweetener saccharin or the food dye Red 3, which even Scheuplein acknowledges cause cancer in laboratory animals? He doesn't factor them into his calculations.

He also ignores other additives like the preservative BHA or the dye Citrus Red 2, even though there is "sufficient" evidence in animals to label them "possibly" carcinogenic to humans, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). …

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