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Last updated August 14, 2017, originally published September 18, 2014

By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Registered
Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and other members of our Editorial

Burger with a side of nickel, anyone? How about breakfast
cereal with lead sprinkles? A surprising number of foods
contain traces of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium,
chromium, and mercury. Just what are you doing to your
health when you eat these foods? How much metal finds its
way into your diet? And can eating foods with traces of
metal lead to serious long-term health consequences?

How Does Metal Get Into Your Food?

Heavy metals like mercury and lead naturally occur in the
environment and are present at varying levels in the soil,
air, and water.

Traces of metals find their way into your body through
food that is grown in earth containing these metals, or
washed over by water that contains traces of the metallic

Human activities like farming, driving, industry, and leisure
also put traces of these metals into the environment. As
you can see, you don’t have to wait until there’s an
industrial disaster for metals to be released into the food
chain – food containing metal is a common occurrence.

How Much Metal is Dangerous?

That said, minute amounts of these metals will not do you
any harm – and some heavy metals are essential for your
health such as zinc, selenium, and copper.

However, accumulation of higher concentrations of metals
in the body over time can lead to poisoning and serious
health problems.  

According to 1990 research from the National Institute of
Public Health and Environmental Protection, The
Netherlands, copper, lead, mercury and cadmium are
cumulative poisons that are exceptionally toxic.

The Food and Drug Administration sets "Action Levels" on
dangerous amounts of compounds in foods including
cadmium, lead, and mercury and monitors levels of metals
in food in order to provide advice for consumers and
legislation for industry.

But, and this is the scary part,
there is no ban or legislation
on tiny amounts of metals in your food
. Given that you will
never be able to fully avoid eating traces of metal in your
food, what are the main health dangers you could

Metals in Food Linked to Autism

A 2013 study from Arizona State University reported that
children with autism had higher levels of metals in their
body compared to children without autism. The study,
looking at 55 children, found significantly higher levels of
lead, thallium, tin, and tungsten in those with

According to the researchers, these toxic metals can
interfere with brain development and brain function, as
well as affect the normal working of other organs. While
more research is needed, the scientists suggest that
reducing early exposure to toxic metals can help to reduce
symptoms of autism.

Of the metals found in high levels in autistic children,
thallium is absorbed best by cabbage. Thallium is present in
soil and cabbage is so good at absorbing thallium from the
soil, that in 2015 scientists from the Institute of
Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences proposed
planting cabbage to mop up excess thallium from
contaminated soil.  They called the process
"phytoremediation of [thalium]-contaminated soils". That
may be good for the contaminated soil but it is not
especially healthful for those of us who eat cabbage and
want to avoid excess metal.

Bear in mind, also, that the amount of thallium is the
cabbage you eat from your neighborhood grocer cannot be
determined without laboratory tests.  

[ Update:

However, scientists have learned that the amount of
thallium in cabbage follows a particular order, with the
most thallium in the oldest leaves on the exterior, followed
by the fresher interior leaves, and the stems have the least
amount of thallium. This is the finding of a 2013 study from
the Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of

Nickel and Dermatitis

The metal nickel is a common cause of allergic contact
dermatitis. If you are sensitive to nickel and you come into
contact with the metal you face itching, scaling, and
redness as a reaction.

You can also be affected when you eat food containing
nickel – and it is surprisingly easy to get more than the
recommended levels of nickel from your food, according to
a 2009 study from The Ohio State University.

For example, the report states that consuming a daily diet
of a bowl of oatmeal (0.22mg of nickel), one banana (0.04
mg), wholegrain bread (0.01mg), chicken breast (0.01mg),
green beans (0.03mg), chocolate bar (0.01mg), broccoli
(0.02mg), baked potato (0.02mg), pork chop (0.005mg)
and some peanuts (0.22mg) will take you well above the
amount of nickel proven to cause allergic reaction.

Nickel can also find its way into your food through tap
water, canned foods due to leaching from the can, and
stainless steel cookware according to a 1992 study from
The Pennsylvania State University at Erie.

Selenium Poisoning from Food

High intake of selenium can cause selenium toxicity – a
condition that includes symptoms of depression, anxiety,
nervousness, nausea, vomiting, and the loss of hair and

Levels of above 900mcg per day are enough to trigger
selenium poisoning, according to the Institute of Medicine.

If you eat lots of Brazil nuts over a long period of time it is
possible you could suffer selenium poisoning – 1 ounce of
the nuts provides 544mcg of selenium, which is 777
percent of the daily value.

Heavy Metal Toxicity in Vegetables

Vegetables are essential for a healthy diet as they provide
vitamins, minerals, iron, and other nutrients but sometimes
they can be more foe than friend.

Vegetables can accumulate toxic elements and the metals in
vegetables can pose a threat to health, according to 2003
research from Yüzüncü Yil University, Turkey.

Which are the biggest culprits? Celery is one. According to
experts, Chinese cabbage, winter greens, pak choi, and
celery are the main sources of metal toxicity.

Vegetables absorb metals by taking them from
contaminated soils, as well as from the air when exposed to
pollution. Data from the 2009 study from The Ohio State
University says nearly half of the ingestion of lead, mercury
and cadmium comes from plants – vegetables, fruit and

Some vegetables can help to remove metals from your
Cilantro, for example, can protect your body against
the build-up of lead.

Zinc Toxicity from Food

The most important effect of zinc toxicity, according to
1998 research from North Shore University Hospital-New
York University School of Medicine, and a 1992 report from
the University of California, is the metal’s impact on the
uptake of copper – copper deficiency can occur, which
results in

Other symptoms of zinc poisoning include tachycardia,
vascular shock, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and

Mercury in the Food You Eat

Levels of mercury are found in fish and seafood due to
ocean pollution and the particular feeding patterns of
certain breeds of sea life.

Methylmercury is the main form of mercury in fish and
other seafood, and the metal is particularly toxic to the
developing nervous system including the brain – this is why
it is important for pregnant women to avoid consuming too
much fish which could be contaminated with mercury as it
can affect the growing fetus.

It is difficult for the average person to exceed
recommended levels of mercury but the risk rises for
frequent fish eaters, according to the European Food
Safety Authority.

Arsenic in Apple Juice

The FDA recently released a report detailing an
investigation into arsenic in apple juice. Was it safe to drink
apple juice, considering that apple juice is one important
source of exposure to arsenic in food?

In particular, experts believed children to be at greater risk
as they drink more apple juice relative to their weight than
adults, and have less of a varied pattern of eating and

Arsenic from food sources can cause cancer, cardiovascular
disease, developmental problems, and
diabetes. Following
monitoring of inorganic arsenic levels in apple juice, the
FDA concluded that it was safe for the public to consume
based on an Action Level of traces of arsenic that must be
met by manufacturers.


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Certain foods such as celery can contain
surprisingly large amounts of lead and
other metals, scientists have found.