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Major Toxins Present in Food That Should Have You Worried

Having access to nutritious and safe food is a necessity for promoting good health and sustaining life. However, there are many common ingredients and foods that can be toxic to your health. While you might be aware of some of them, there are several that you may be unaware of. At the same time, there are many myths as well that have falsely classified certain foods and ingredients as being toxic. Here are some major toxins that are present in your food that should have you worried.

Major Toxins Present in Food That Should Have You Worried

  1. Added Sugars

    Added sugars are one of the most common toxins that are present in your food. Commonly referred to as just empty calories, there are many harmful effects of added sugars on your health.

    Sugar that contains high levels of fructose, for example, high fructose corn syrup, when consumed in excess is known to cause many serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer.(1234)

    Foods that contain high levels of added sugars are usually highly processed and they might have addictive qualities as well, making it challenging for some people to stop or even control their intake of such foods.

    Some animal studies have shown that the ability of added sugars to cause the release of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine in the brain is responsible for stimulating the reward pathways, causing a certain addiction to sugary foods.(56)

    It is recommended that you reduce your intake of added sugars by restricting your consumption of sugary drinks like soda and even fruit juices. You should also try to limit your intake of processed snacks and desserts. Having these once in a while is unlikely to cause long-term effects.

  2. Mercury in Fish

    Many people prefer having fish over other animal meats. And why not, considering that fish is a very healthy animal protein. However, at the same time, it is important to know that some varieties of fish, especially deep sea fish, can contain high levels of the toxin mercury. This happens due to the toxin working its way through the food chain in the sea and landing up in the fish that you end up consuming.(7)

    The manner in which mercury lands up in fish is through plants that grow in waters contaminated by mercury. These plants get consumed by smaller fish, which, in turn, get eaten by larger fish. Over a period of time, mercury begins to build up in the bodies of these bigger fish, which eventually get consumed by humans.

    The risks associated with mercury ingestion can be high since mercury is a known neurotoxin. This means that mercury can cause damage to the nerves and brain. Studies have shown that pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are at high risk of the negative impacts of mercury ingestion since mercury is known to impact the development of the fetal and infant brain and nervous systems.(8)

    An analysis carried out in 2014 across several countries found mercury levels in the blood and hair of women and children. This level of mercury was significantly higher than what the World Health Organization recommends, especially near mines and coastal communities in the world.(9)

    What is important to know is that there are certain fish, like swordfish and king mackerel, which contain extremely high levels of mercury and should ideally be avoided. At the same time, you should continue to have other types of fish if you buy your fish from a safe and reliable source as fish are very good for your health and have many benefits.(10)

    To limit your exposure to mercury toxin, you should opt to have low-mercury fish like pollock, herring, salmon, and catfish.(11)

  3. Artificial Trans Fats

    Artificial trans fats are another type of toxin that is present in your food. These fats are produced by putting hydrogen into unsaturated oils such as corn and soybean oils, which turn them into solid fats. Artificial trans fats are used in a wide variety of processed foods, including snacks, margarine, and packaged baked goods.

    Studies carried out on animals and observational studies have both consistently shown that the consumption of trans fats causes inflammation in the body and also has an adverse impact on your heart health.(121314)

    Due to this reason, the United States banned the use of artificial trans fats in January 2020 itself.(15)

    Certain animal-based foods may contain certain types of naturally produced trans fats. These, however, do not have the same type of harmful effects on your health as compared to the industrially produced artificial trans fats.

  4. Bisphenol A and Other Compounds

    Bisphenol A, commonly referred to as BPA, is a type of chemical that is commonly found in the many plastic containers we use, as well as the boxes in which common foods and beverages are sold in, as well as the lining present inside metallic cans, for example, the cans used for canned tomatoes.

    Many studies have shown that the chemical BPA can leach out of these containers and get into the food item or beverage inside.(16) BPA has many harmful effects. It is believed to mimic the hormone estrogen by attaching to the receptor sites that are meant for the hormone, which causes a disruption in the normal functioning of the hormone.(17)

    Studies carried out on pregnant animals have found that exposure to BPA can cause problems with reproduction and also increase the risk of developing prostate and breast cancer in the developing baby.(1819)

    Other observational studies have also discovered that high levels of BPA are linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity, and insulin resistance.(2021)

    The good news is that as of today, the majority of plastics and cans are BPA-free. However, while BPA is no longer used, the chemical has been replaced with other similar compounds like bisphenol S, which also has similar negative effects on health, with some studies noting that bisphenol S might actually be more toxic to the human reproductive system as compared to BPA.(22)

    To reduce the exposure to such harmful toxins, it is best to avoid using plastic dishware as much as possible. This also includes bottled water. Opt for using stainless steel and glass utensils and drinkware. Also, try to buy foods that are not packaged in plastic.

  5. Coumarin Present in Cinnamon

    Now, this is a toxin that you might not have heard about. Coumarin is a toxin present in a variety of cinnamon, including C. loureiroi, C. cassia, and C. burmannii. If consumed in high doses, coumarin is associated with an increased risk of liver damage and even cancer. However, it is not possible to know exactly how much coumarin is there in your cinnamon without having it tested.(23)

    One study noted that children who were regularly sprinkling cinnamon on their oatmeal or cereal could be consuming unsafe amounts of coumarin. So it is a good idea to watch your intake of cinnamon.(24) And, if you absolutely must have some cinnamon, it is a good idea to buy a different type of cinnamon such as Ceylon cinnamon, which is slightly more expensive but contains lower levels of coumarin.


It is important to remember that many of the claims that you hear about the harmful effects of certain foods or toxins being present in some food items are not always supported by science. However, there are some foods and ingredients that should be a matter of concern for everyone. To reduce the risk of any adverse effects from these foods and food compounds, it is best to restrict your intake of seed oils, processed meats, added sugars, and processed foods as much as you can. While this does not mean that you need to give up your favorite foods completely, it is best to consume them in limited amounts.


  1. Stanhope, K.L., Schwarz, J.M. and Havel, P.J., 2013. Adverse metabolic effects of dietary fructose: results from recent epidemiological, clinical, and mechanistic studies. Current opinion in lipidology, 24(3), p.198.
  2. Basaranoglu, M., Basaranoglu, G., Sabuncu, T. and Sentürk, H., 2013. Fructose as a key player in the development of fatty liver disease. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG, 19(8), p.1166.
  3. DiNicolantonio, J.J., O’Keefe, J.H. and Lucan, S.C., 2015, March. Added fructose: a principal driver of type 2 diabetes mellitus and its consequences. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 90, No. 3, pp. 372-381). Elsevier.
  4. van Buul, V.J., Tappy, L. and Brouns, F.J., 2014. Misconceptions about fructose-containing sugars and their role in the obesity epidemic. Nutrition research reviews, 27(1), pp.119-130.
  5. Lustig, R.H., 2020. Ultraprocessed food: Addictive, toxic, and ready for regulation. Nutrients, 12(11), p.3401.
  6. Levy, A., Marshall, P., Zhou, Y., Kreek, M.J., Kent, K., Daniels, S., Shore, A., Downs, T., Fernandes, M.F., Mutch, D.M. and Leri, F., 2015. Fructose: glucose ratios—a study of sugar self-administration and associated neural and physiological responses in the rat. Nutrients, 7(5), pp.3869-3890.
  7. Rice, K.M., Walker Jr, E.M., Wu, M., Gillette, C. and Blough, E.R., 2014. Environmental mercury and its toxic effects. Journal of preventive medicine and public health, 47(2), p.74.
  8. Kimakova, T., Kuzmova, L., Nevolna, Z. and Bencko, V., 2018. Fish and fish products as risk factors of mercury exposure. Annals of agricultural and environmental medicine, 25(3), pp.488-493.
  9. Sheehan, M.C., Burke, T.A., Navas-Acien, A., Breysse, P.N., McGready, J. and Fox, M.A., 2014. Global methylmercury exposure from seafood consumption and risk of developmental neurotoxicity: a systematic review. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 92, pp.254-269F.
  10. Oehlenschläger, J., 2012. Seafood: nutritional benefits and risk aspects. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research, 82(3), pp.168-176.
  11. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (no date) Advice about eating fish, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish (Accessed: November 8, 2022).
  12. Iwata, N.G., Pham, M., Rizzo, N.O., Cheng, A.M., Maloney, E. and Kim, F., 2011. Trans fatty acids induce vascular inflammation and reduce vascular nitric oxide production in endothelial cells. PLoS One, 6(12), p.e29600.
  13. Russell, E., 2014. Artificial trans fatty acids do not belong in our food. CMAJ, 186(8), pp.563-563.
  14. Oteng, A.B. and Kersten, S., 2020. Mechanisms of action of trans fatty acids. Advances in Nutrition, 11(3), pp.697-708.
  15. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (no date) Trans fat, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/trans-fat (Accessed: November 8, 2022).
  16. Rubin, B.S., 2011. Bisphenol A: an endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 127(1-2), pp.27-34.
  17. Alonso-Magdalena, P., Ropero, A.B., Soriano, S., García-Arévalo, M., Ripoll, C., Fuentes, E., Quesada, I. and Nadal, Á., 2012. Bisphenol-A acts as a potent estrogen via non-classical estrogen triggered pathways. Molecular and cellular endocrinology, 355(2), pp.201-207.
  18. Hunt, P.A., Lawson, C., Gieske, M., Murdoch, B., Smith, H., Marre, A., Hassold, T. and VandeVoort, C.A., 2012. Bisphenol A alters early oogenesis and follicle formation in the fetal ovary of the rhesus monkey. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(43), pp.17525-17530.
  19. Ayyanan, A., Laribi, O., Schuepbach-Mallepell, S., Schrick, C., Gutierrez, M., Tanos, T., Lefebvre, G., Rougemont, J., Yalcin-Ozuysal, Ö. and Brisken, C., 2011. Perinatal exposure to bisphenol a increases adult mammary gland progesterone response and cell number. Molecular Endocrinology, 25(11), pp.1915-1923.
  20. Shankar, A. and Teppala, S., 2011. Relationship between urinary bisphenol A levels and diabetes mellitus. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 96(12), pp.3822-3826.
  21. Wang, T., Li, M., Chen, B., Xu, M., Xu, Y., Huang, Y., Lu, J., Chen, Y., Wang, W., Li, X. and Liu, Y., 2012. Urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentration associates with obesity and insulin resistance. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 97(2), pp.E223-E227.
  22. Thoene, M., Dzika, E., Gonkowski, S. and Wojtkiewicz, J., 2020. Bisphenol S in food causes hormonal and obesogenic effects comparable to or worse than bisphenol A: a literature review. Nutrients, 12(2), p.532.
  23. Wang, Y.H., Avula, B., Nanayakkara, N.D., Zhao, J. and Khan, I.A., 2013. Cassia cinnamon as a source of coumarin in cinnamon-flavored food and food supplements in the United States. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 61(18), pp.4470-4476.
  24. Fotland, T.Ø., Paulsen, J.E., Sanner, T., Alexander, J. and Husøy, T., 2012. Risk assessment of coumarin using the bench mark dose (BMD) approach: Children in Norway which regularly eat oatmeal porridge with cinnamon may exceed the TDI for coumarin with several folds. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 50(3-4), pp.903-912.
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:November 26, 2022

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