Friday, June 17, 2011

Food Fears: Toxic Reveng(er)

Google tells me that people are really enjoying (or at least reading) the last Food Fears post:

If you're interested, you can check that one out, too. But, it's not like you have to read one to understand the other. This all started with my recent detox and some musing about what exactly we're all trying to detox out of our bodies to start with. With the last post, we uncovered that toxins are made from other organisms and often cause really bad effects when we eat them - think paralysis, digestive disorders, and even death.

Since most of the people you find designing or partaking in detoxes around here seem to be in pretty good health, then toxins are not actually what we are removing from our it must be the other kind of 'tox', those items that are toxic.

Toxic has a much broader definition. In fact, everything can be toxic to humans. Even water. Really. Yeah, that guy who has been going on and on about how sugar is toxic - he's right. Which is why moderation is key. We need glucose, and sugar is one way to get it, but too much of any sugar source is toxic to our bodies and will have effects on our health.

If everything is toxic, then how do we measure toxicity? 

Toxicity is measured by lethal in how much of the stuff does it take to kill you? The actual notation is of the LD50, or Median Lethal Dose. Because the effect of a substance varies on different people, animals, sexes, and ethnicities, this is actually a more accurate way to represent the danger that a substance presents to us.
Now that we understand LD50, we need to also understand the units that go along with the number. This is how it usually works:

LD50 = # mg of the substance / # kg of bodyweight

So, first things first. One mg (milligram) is equivalent to 0.001 grams, and one kg (kilogram) is equivalent to 1000 we are talking about a dose that is on the order of one million parts smaller than the person or creature that ingests it.

Got it? Ok, quick quiz, my very smart friends:

Which substance is more lethal...i.e. needs the smaller dose to cause death?

Botulinum toxin at 0.000001 mg/kg
Hydrogen Cyanide 1 mg/kg
Nicotine 50 mg/kg's the botulinum toxin. The smallest number means that it takes the least about to be lethal. If you got it right, give yourself a little pat on your back. Good job :)

Since we're not usually ingesting botulinum toxin or hydrogen cyanide (or at least not THAT much nicotine), we should really talk about real, edible things. 

Ok, scare me. What common things are surprisingly lethal? 

Ok, so let's do the basics first...sugar, water, salt...all lethal....but in incredibly high doses. Since I gave you the really bad stuff first (botulinum toxin is no joke), these will seem really high.

Table Sugar 29,700 mg/kg
Table Salt 3,000 mg/kg
Water...not accurately calculable. But it is possible...the reality is that you'd probably drown before you died from ingesting water, and water over-consumption leads to a lot of unpleasant side effects that would ultimately be the cause of your death.

We constantly balance consuming to meet our needs with overconsumption, so we need sugar and salt, but we can also overconsume sugar and salt, which can kill us.

What about some other edibles...these ones that are a little more optional...

Ethanol 7,060 mg/kg
Aspirin 200 mg/kg
Caffeine 192 mg/kg

How many of you know someone who has died of alcohol poisoning? You can see that the lethal dose for ethanol is actually higher than that for salt, and considerably higher than that of caffeine...and while consumption is relative, it should give you and idea of the possibilities.

Finally, how about some vitamins and supplements...since these are the sneaky ones. See, our body is smart. If we're overconsuming something and we give it enough time to respond, it will respond by telling us not to eat that anymore. Caffeine jitters, drunkeness, even dehydration associated with too many salty foods are all designed to get our attention. When we ingest supplements, we send a huge dose of the chemical or compound directly to our digestive system, and that can be very dangerous.

Vitamin C 11,900 mg/kg
Iron 30 g/kg 
Vitamin E 4000 mg/kg

Vitamin E and other fat soluble vitamins are especially dangerous because they can build up in your system over time by storing themselves in your system.

So, how much of those things do I really need to eat to get sick or die?

For most foods, lethality isn't going to be a major issue. It's eating to the point where you feel good and not eating more. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to monitor that if you're eating a poor diet and have been for most of your recent memory...

Maybe the best example I can give is ingesting a 2L bottle of regular soda made with sugar (not HFCS) contains over 200 grams of sugar, which is 200,000 mg of sugar. The LD50 for table sugar is 29,500 mg/kg. For a 150 lb person (~68 kg), that means that you would need to ingest 2006 g on average to die from table sugar. That is approximately 10 2-L bottles of soda. That’s a lot of soda.
In the same vein, using the same math, you’d have to ingest over 0.75 cup of table salt to die from salt poisoning.
Alternately, you’d only have to consume 16.8 oz of straight ethanol to die from ethanol poisoning…that’s 42 shots of 40% (80 proof) liquor in your system all at once. Because ethanol doesn’t clear your system (i.e. metabolize) very quickly, it can build up in your system to reach that lethal dose, so it doesn’t all have to be ingested at once.

Am I really going to rid my body of these things during a 'detox'? 
Well, yes. Often, flushing your body of these things with water will help. And a traditional detox will do that for you. I think really 'detox' is a trendy way to say that you’re going to clean up your diet, clear out what you have been eating, and replace it with clean eating, and I’m ok with that.
Next time on Food Fears, let’s look at food intolerances and allergies, and talk about the differences between them.


  1. I'm calling you out, Doc.

    Your body is really good at flushing toxins. Starving, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances only make your body function worse. Any kind of "this and this only" detox is likely to simply to cause side effects--The good feeling after the detox is your body returning to normal after resuming a real diet.

    Anything credible information I've ever found charitably isolates the benefits of "detoxing" to incidentally eating healthier--the less charitable ones toss around weighty phrases like confirmation bias and placebo effect. In general, the consensus seems to be that detox diets generally as imbalanced as the diets they are correcting.

    If you really were ingesting traces of something toxic that was slowly building up. Wouldn't you be better off removing the toxin and continuing to eat a balanced, diverse diet?

    I suppose that is "detox" in a very technical sense but I think that's playing fast and loose with the colloquial definition; when someone says "I'm detoxing" or "cleansing" it's generally safe to assume they are drinking nothing but cranberry juice for 3 days or something equally ridiculous.

    I feel a twinge of trepidation whenever labeling something helpful conditionally requires that we shift our understanding of it away from the culturally accepted definition.

    We could write a nice article about how shaking babies is o.k. as long as it's super gentle and just their big toe.

    The shorthand becomes troublesome.

  2. I think we actually believe the same thing and I'm a little unclear on where you got the idea that I am advocating a juice cleanse or the like.

    My motivation behind this series is the educate the public about the true definition of such things as toxins, toxics, allergens, and intolerable substances. Popular media culture has intertwined them to a degree that I believe is dangerous. I understand your 'twinge of trepidation', but we aren't going to fix the problem by continuing to use muddled nomenclature and semantics. The whole point of this post was to discuss what is toxic (anything and everything), how we measure toxicity (LD50), and whether or not these are actually chemicals that can be removed from our system by a detox (yes, with the exception of some fat-soluble compounds). This further illuminates the idea that toxic material can be removed from your system, whereas true toxins (as described in the previous post in this series) often cannot. I nowhere describe a 'perfect' detox, nor do I advocate any type of cleanse.

    Finally, I think you're making some very loose assumptions about the typical American diet if you think the average American starts by having a "balanced, diverse diet". In fact, often people use detox to describe beginning to practice this type of diet, as their current or past eating habits were not up to this standard.

    Just some food for thought.