Please Pass the Carcinogens

The holiday feasting season is truly upon us. We've survived Thanksgiving, but there is still, depending upon religious affiliation, Christmas, Hanukkah or Ramadan to get through, followed by the New Year's Eve blowout -- and this New Year's Eve is the one that really, truly marks the start of the new millennium. If you are an Orthodox Christian and keep the Julian calendar for holidays, you're not off the caloric hook until January 13, the Julian New Year's date.

Perhaps you'll be able to control yourself better at the holiday table once you remember that you're ingesting naturally occurring carcinogens and mutagens. Plants, especially, have developed a large variety of chemical defenses against insect pests and, in some cases, animals. Spinach, for instance, contains a compound that blocks the body's ability to absorb certain B vitamins, making it less nutritious to grazing animals and people. All the cruciferous vegetables, a large family of plants that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and the mustard group (mustard seed, arugula and canola), contain compounds called goitrins. Goitrin prevents the thyroid gland from absorbing iodine, leading to the deficiency disease known as goiter.

If you think that eliminating spinach and brussels sprouts from your holiday menu is going to eradicate all the proven problem chemicals in your diet, think again.

Let's say you start with a relish tray of healthy raw veggies. Some sliced mushrooms? The common cultivated mushroom Agaricus bisporus or champignon contains hydrazine, a component of modern rocket fuel and a potent rodent carcinogen. (Cooking destroys the hydrazine, so only raw mushrooms are a threat.) The carrot sticks, maybe? They contain aniline and caffeic acid, both rodent carcinogens. Cherry tomatoes? Now you're ingesting benzaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide and quercetin glycosides, the last two substances being proven mutagens as well as rodent carcinogens.

Celery sticks? What could be more innocuous than a celery stick? Just don't go there! In addition to the aforementioned caffeic acid and furan derivatives, which are mere mutagens (a mutagen is a substance that has been shown to cause changes in the DNA of bacteria -- do you really want to run the risk of having a two-headed child?), celery, along with that sleeping serpent parsley, contains psoralens. These compounds have been shown to be both mutagens and human and rodent carcinogens. People who have handled commercial quantities of celery, such as supermarket checkers, have been known to develop lesions on their hands from the psoralens in celery.

Skipping the relish tray, you hold out for the turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy and mashed potatoes. The turkey, in addition to containing a compound that encourages people to go to sleep (you don't want to be operating heavy machinery after a turkey dinner), contains heterocyclic amines, which are as bad as most of the chemicals found on the relish tray. The cranberry sauce contains more furan derivatives. The potatoes? If you are a constitutionally nervous person, you may want to skip the next paragraph about potatoes.

Harold McGee, the respected author of On Food and Cooking, minces no words when it comes to the potato. "Among commonly eaten plant foods," he observes, "only the potato seriously threatens us with alkaloid poisoning. Small amounts of the alkaloids solanine and chaconine are normally present in the potato and contribute to its characteristic flavor. But the higher levels that result from mishandling can be toxic, and there are several recorded instances of serious group poisonings caused by bad potatoes.These substances are not destroyed by heating. Potato sprouts are rich in these alkaloids and should be thoroughly excised before the potato is cooked."

So how are you going to answer the next time somebody in a hair net asks you, "Would you like fries with that?"

Are you going to wait for dessert? Consider the common apple, the basic ingredient in many holiday treats. Do you know if the people preparing the apple dish are really concerned about you? The flesh of the apple contains seven known mutagens and/or rodent carcinogens. That is death on the installment plan. The seeds, however, are another thing. Again, McGee tells that among common foods, cyanogens are found primarily in the seeds of the pome and stone fruits, including the apple. Cyanogens, for those unfamiliar with organic chemistry, are the precursor compounds for hydrogen cyanide, a potent poisonous gas. The fruit seeds mentioned above also have an enzyme that converts the cyanogens to hydrogen cyanide. McGee relates that "there have been instances of people who have roasted and eaten a few dozen apple seeds as a novelty and died of cyanide poisoning."

If the apple pie is flavored with nutmeg, you are ingesting a toxic oil, myristicin. Two whole nutmegs contain enough myristicin to produce hallucinations and cause such side effects as severe headaches, cramps and nausea. Nutmeg also contains safrole, a rodent carcinogen.

Coffee? A cup of joe contains no fewer than 13 different mutagens and rodent carcinogens.

If at this point you are saying to yourself, "Boy, am I lucky not to have been born a lab rat," you are saying the right thing. A lab rat is not a little man in a fur coat. Additionally, to cause cancer in a rat or mouse, huge doses of these chemicals have to be fed to the animal over its entire life span. An American Council on Science and Health article did a calculation using the known rodent carcinogen furfural, observing that "when you take into account the difference in body weight between a human and a rodent, based on the carcinogenicity data available from the laboratory, a person would have to eat 82,600 slices of bread every day" to consume an amount of furfural equal to the amount that increased the risk of cancer in rodents.

As any amateur or professional student of toxicology can tell you, dosage determines toxicity.

So enjoy your holiday meals. Because as Hank Williams used to sing, "Nobody gets out this world alive."

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George Alexander