PAHs Contaminate Supplements?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Environment and Health, Food and Health, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health

Do Your Supplements Contain Carcinogens?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

pahs in supplementsMost of us take supplements to improve our health. We count on those supplements being pure and effective. We don’t expect the supplements we take to contain carcinogenic (cancer causing) contaminants. However, that expectation appears to be unfounded. A recent study found that 72% of supplements tested were contaminated with a particularly dangerous class of cancer causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Where Do PAHs Come From  andWhy Are TheyDeadly?

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are produced by incomplete combustion of organic materials. Major environmental sources of PAHs are incomplete burning of gasoline, coal and other fuels. Unfortunately, automobile exhaust, coal burning power plants, and exhaust from factories are almost ubiquitous in today’s world, resulting in significant PAH contamination of our air, water, and soil. The unfortunate truth is that we all live in an increasingly dirty and toxic environment.

pahs can come from highwayAs you might imagine, cigarette smoke is the #1 source of PAHs in humans. However, foods are a major route for PAH exposure in humans as well. There are many food sources of PAHs. For example,

  • Grilling, roasting and frying foods, especially meats, at high temperatures creates PAHs.
  • Smoking fish or meats creates PAHs.
  • Barbecuing meats creates PAHs.
  • Even plant-based foods can contain PAHs if the soil, air or water they were grown in was contaminated.
  • PAHs can be introduced into supplements if any of their ingredients are dried at high temperatures as part of the processing procedure.

By now you are probably realizing that it is not just our environment that is increasingly being contaminated with PAHs. We are all becoming contaminated with PAHs as well. Our bodies are becoming toxic waste dumps.

Unfortunately, PAHs are not innocuous chemicals. Perhaps the best studied and deadliest of the PAHs is a compound called benzo[a]pyrene. It is classified as a class 1 carcinogen and mutagen by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). Perhaps some explanation is in order:

  • The IARC is an international organization that is charged with evaluating the scientific evidence for the carcinogenicity of various chemicals. It also sets upper limits for safe exposure to those chemicals.
  • Class 1 carcinogens are compounds that the IARC has classified as definitely carcinogenic to humans. Simply put, the IARC considers the scientific evidence to be overwhelming that those compounds are carcinogens.

To date only 118 compounds have been blacklisted by the IARC as class 1 carcinogens and benzo[a]pyrene is one of them. However, many of the other, less studied, PAHs are classified as probable carcinogens by the IARC.

Unfortunately, in most countries of the world (including the United States), PAH limits in food and supplements are unregulated. Because they are unregulated, many supplement companies don’t even test for them. That is unfortunate because a recent study shows that many supplements are contaminated with high levels of PAHs, and their manufacturers didn’t even know it.

Do Your Supplements Contain PAHs or Other Carcinogens?

carcinogens in supplementsThe European Union has taken the lead in regulating PAH levels. They have used the IARC guidelines to create upper allowable limits for PAHs in food and supplements. Separate standards were set for benzo[a]pyrene and the total of the four most common PAH contaminants (benzo[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[b]fluoranthrene, and chrysene). Those new regulations just went into effect April 1st 2016.

To gauge the impact of these new regulations on the supplement industry, the EU asked the European Union Reference Laboratory to measure the levels of PAH contamination in supplements sold in the EU prior to the implementation of the new regulations. Because vitamin and mineral supplements are seldom contaminated with PAHs, they were excluded from the study.

The EU Reference Laboratory started collecting a wide range of herbal and botanical supplements, fish and edible oil food supplements, and propolis and other bee supplements sold in the EU in 2013. The Reference Laboratory analyzed 94 different supplements for PAH contamination, and the results of these analyses were published in October 2015 (Z. Zelinkova and T. Wenzyl, Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, 32: 1914-1926, 2015).

[In case you, like me, were wondering what propolis is, it is a resin like substance that bees use as a glue to hold their hives together. WebMD states that it may have some use as a topical agent for cold sores, genital herpes, and after mouth surgery, but that any other uses are unproven. However, if you visit websites for propolis products you find it in capsules and liquids for internal consumption. You are told that it cures bacterial and fungal infections, cures viral infections like AIDs, cures cancer, and removes warts.]

The results of their analysis were pretty scary:

  • 72% of the supplements tested exceeded EU limits for the four most common PAH contaminants, and 52% exceeded EU limits for benzo[a]pyrene.
  • Propolis and spirulina were the most heavily contaminated supplements. Valerian and St. John’s Wort had moderately high levels of contamination, and some samples of bee pollen, sea buckthorn oil, barley greens, Echinacea, and Ginko far exceeded EU standards.
  • If consumers took the recommended dosage of the two most contaminated products (Premium Spirulina and Propolis Intense) they would more than double their daily intake of PAHs and far exceed what the IARC considers safe.
  • Fish oils generally had low levels of PAH contamination. The authors speculated this may be because fish have the ability to metabolize PAHs. However, other edible oils, particularly sea buckthorn oil and a mixture of garlic oil with soybean and sunflower oils did exhibit significant PAH contamination. The authors speculated that this PAH contamination may have been introduced during the processing of these oils.

Why The PAH and Contamination Problem Is Worse Than You Thought

worseYou might be thinking what could be worse than 72% of supplements being contaminated with cancer causing PAHs? Here is some food for thought.

  • PAHs are just the tip of the iceberg. Many supplements are also contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals. For example:
  • Fish oil is often contaminated PCBs.
  • Rice protein and other rice-derived ingredients are often contaminated with lead and/or mercury.
  • The US regulates PAHs in our water supply, but does not currently regulate PAHs in our supplements. That means that manufacturers that make products primarily for consumption in the US have no incentive to test their products for PAH contamination. Most of them have no idea whether their products are safe or not.
  • There is no guarantee that even products labeled Certified Organic and Non-GMO are free of PAH contamination. For example:
  • Organic certification just means that the crop was raised using organic methods. No analysis of purity is required to assure that the crop had not been inadvertently contaminated. The same is true of non-GMO certification. No analysis of purity is required.
  • Organically grown, non-GMOcrops that are used as ingredients for supplements can still be contaminated if the air, soil or water is contaminated from any nearby pollution source. For example, ground water pollution is the major source of the heavy metal contamination often seen in rice-derived ingredients.
  • Organically grown, non-GMO crops can even become contaminated by PAHs if they are grown next to a busy highway.
  • Even if the ingredients are pure to begin with, PAH contamination can be introduced during processing.

What does all of this mean to us? It means that it is absolutely imperative that we do our due diligence and only choose supplement manufacturers whose quality control standards far exceed what is required of the industry. Our health just may depend on it.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study has reported that 72% of herbal and botanical supplements, fish and edible oil food supplements, and supplements derived from bees sold in the EU were contaminated with high levels of cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • The levels of PAHs in many of these products far exceeded standards recently enacted by the EU. If those supplements were taken as recommended, the daily intake of PAHs by people consuming them would also far exceed the safe limits of exposure to these toxic chemicals set in place by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • While all of this sounds bad enough, the news is even worse for most of us living in the US.
  • PAHs are just the tip of the iceberg. Many supplements are also contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals.
  • The US regulates PAHs in our water supply, but does not currently regulate PAHs in our supplements. That means that manufacturers that make products primarily for consumption in the US have no incentive to test their products for PAH contamination. Most of them have no idea whether their products are safe or not.
  • There is no guarantee that even products labeled Certified Organic and Non-GMO are free of PAH contamination.
  • What does all of this mean to us? It means that it is absolutely imperative that we do our due diligence and only choose supplements manufacturers whose quality control standards far exceed what is required of the industry. Our health just may depend on it.  Remember, PAHs are not the only potential problem.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1