There is no denying that eating a healthy diet is essential to living a long and healthy life. After all, studies have shown that a healthy diet and quality eating habits can significantly reduce your risk of premature death. However, as with most things in life, there is a catch. Under the right set of circumstances, even foods we consider healthy can become potentially dangerous if consumed in excess or improperly prepared.
But which healthy foods are at risk of posing a toxic threat, and how can you be sure you’re only eating foods that are safe to consume? And, more importantly, how and why does this happen in the first place? To help us answer these questions, we spoke with several nutrition experts and a medical doctor.
There are several reasons why food that we believe is healthy for us may actually be harmful to us. Undiagnosed or unrecognized food allergies, or when a food allergen is ingested inadvertently or unknowingly by someone, food that has spoiled or is not properly cooked, or food that is only safe if eaten in a certain way are common causes. Because you may be more susceptible to infections if you are pregnant or immunocompromised, there are many foods that you should avoid that would normally be relatively safe.
Continue reading to learn which healthy foods can sometimes have toxic or even fatal consequences and how to eat them safely in the future.
1. Brown rice
Although brown rice is a nutrient-dense whole grain, this fiber-rich pantry staple may also contain inorganic arsenic. According to Consumer Reports, chronic arsenic exposure increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and skin, bladder, and liver cancer.
Foods containing brown rice can be high in carcinogenic heavy metal arsenic because arsenic accumulates in the grain’s otherwise healthy, fiber-filled, and antioxidant-rich outer layers. Because these layers are removed from white rice during processing, brown rice contains 80% more inorganic arsenic than white rice.
The key to eating brown rice and brown rice-based products without worry is to be mindful of how much you consume and to eat them in moderation. Brown rice is healthier than white rice in many ways, but don’t go overboard. So get some variety because arsenic is likely to accumulate if you drink rice milk and eat brown rice every day, for example.
Mussels, oysters, clams, scallops, crab, shrimp, lobster, and other shellfish may be toxic to your health depending on what they consumed while still in the sea, and this contamination risk is especially prevalent in shellfish that inhabit mild or tropical waters. Toxins are produced by small marine organisms (dinoflagellates or diatoms) and are concentrated by shellfish.
Shellfish poisoning symptoms include gastroenteritis, dizziness, disorientation, lethargy, short-term memory loss, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and, in severe cases, respiratory difficulty, seizures, coma, and death. In 1987, Prince Edward Island, Canada, experienced one of the more notable shellfish poisoning outbreaks. Over 100 people became ill after eating contaminated mussels, with a few deaths as a result.
3. Unpasteurized cheese
Because unpasteurized cheese lacks the sterilization provided by pasteurization, it can serve as a breeding ground for host food-borne illnesses and bacteria, with potentially serious consequences.
Although an unwelcome diagnosis has historically resulted in some fatalities, the risk of mortality is far higher in cases of listeria, which the CDC believes is the third leading cause of food poisoning and foodborne illness-related deaths in the United States.
4. Stone fruits
Cherries and other stone fruits such as peaches, apricots, and plums are potentially toxic because they contain cyanogenic compounds that your body can convert into poisonous hydrogen cyanide. Depending on how much you eat, they can produce up to nearly 1 mg of hydrogen cyanide in your body. However, the risk of cyanide toxicity is said to be due to consuming the pits, and it does take quite a few to reach that level.
Though honey has many health benefits, when unpasteurized, it can contain poisonous alkaloids that cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, as well as grayanotoxins, which can cause paralysis and even death. Honey can also be contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead.
Honey, in particular, can be dangerous for infants because it contains a bacteria called C. botulinum, which can produce a toxin in a baby’s intestines and cause infant botulism, a rare but fatal illness.
6. Puffer fish
When cooked properly, puffer fish—or fugu, as this dish is known in Japan—can be considered a delicacy; however, sitting down to a fine dining experience featuring fugu can definitely be a gamble in terms of potential health risks.
Pufferfish are poisonous if not cooked properly; in Japan, chefs must pass a national written and practical exam just to be able to cook puffer fish.
Despite their reputation as a nutritious health food high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals while being low in sodium, fat, and calories, sprouts can be toxic if not thoroughly washed before eating.
Sprouts have been the subject of a number of contamination outbreaks over the years, with the FDA issuing a large recall of alfalfa sprouts from SunSprout Enterprises in December 2022 to investigate a salmonella outbreak in a few states.
Eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts, such as alfalfa, bean, or any other sprout, may result in food poisoning from salmonella, E. coli, or listeria. Thoroughly cooking sprouts kills harmful germs and reduces the risk of food poisoning.
8. Microwave popcorn
Although popcorn does not pose a health risk, the chemicals in the nonstick coating that lines the inside of microwave popcorn bags can manifest in toxic ways that can increase your cancer risk. As the popcorn cooks in the microwave, the bag lining decomposes, contaminating the salty kernels inside.
You should avoid microwaveable bags because they are lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the same toxic chemical found in Teflon pots and pans. It’s known as a forever chemical because it stays in the body for very long periods of time, is an endocrine disrupter, and can threaten fertility. The EPA lists PFOA as a carcinogen.
How to Keep Safe
When it comes to anything we ingest or are exposed to, it is important to remember that the dose makes the poison, and for many of these examples, toxicity can be a concern if a person consumes large amounts—not a little bit.
Bacteria multiply faster between 40°-140°F, so keep your potato salad cold and your meat hot; keep cold food cold and hot food hot.