These pollutants are found in food – and what you can do about them

pollutants in food
Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / ElasticComputeFarm

Some pollutants enter food through humans, some are of natural origin. We explain which ones exist and how you can prevent their inclusion.

Pollutants that enter food through humans include antibiotics, dioxin, heavy metals and pesticides. They can be found in meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Natural pollutants mostly benefit the plants themselves, as they protect them from predators. These include, for example, hydrocyanic acid and phasin.

With a few tricks you can prevent the absorption of the pollutants or make the poison non-toxic – we’ll show you how it’s done.

Antibiotics as a pollutant in meat products

antibiotics are found in food, along with a number of other pollutants. Residues of antibiotics are particularly found in products from factory farming. This includes meat from pork, chicken and beef. Because many breeders give their animals this remedy to prevent various pathogens from spreading.

The problem is that farmers regularly feed them antibiotics and bacteria become resistant. And that’s exactly how it is with humans. This is particularly bad when someone is dependent on antibiotics because they are chronically ill or have a weak immune system. When antibiotics stop working for these people, their health problems can become less manageable.

Dioxin in fatty animal products

dioxin mainly found in animal products with a high fat content. The reason for this is that the substance is deposited in fatty tissue in particular. Products that can contain dioxin include dairy products, meat, fish and eggs.

According to Stiftung Warentest, meat and fish contribute more to the total dioxin contamination than eggs. Dioxin enters the air and soil through processes such as burning garbage or industrial processes such as metal extraction. Farm animals absorb this substance through it. The pollutant is very long-lived and breaks down only slowly. The substance is long-lived both in the organism and in nature, and it is very toxic even in low concentrations. Dioxin can also be found in fats that are added to animal feed.

In animal experiments, the health consequences identified included weight loss, liver damage and metabolic diseases. There are various dioxin compounds, of which the compound 2,3,7,8-TCDD is particularly harmful. It is classified as carcinogenic by the WHO. According to the European Food Safety Authority, sperm quality can also be negatively affected by dioxin.

Pollutants in fish: heavy metals

heavy metals are mainly found in fish. These include lead and cadmium. Fish ingest them through bodies of water and seas, where the toxic substances from industrial and car exhaust fumes end up. Oily fish in particular absorb heavy metals. These include halibut, pike or tuna. Depending on the dose, heavy metals can cause headaches or damage nerves and organs.

But heavy metals can also be found in fruit and vegetables. This is often the case when growing fruit on busy roads or in lead-polluted locations. Heavy metal contamination can also occur when fruit is displayed on the sidewalk.

Pollutants in fruits and vegetables: fertilizer

Fertilizers can also still be in your food.
Fertilizers can also still be in your food. (Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / wuzefe)

That chemical-synthetic pesticides being used around the world to increase yields is nothing new. But these pesticides or fertilizers can also end up in your food by depositing there. Pesticides can be detected in imported fruit and vegetables in particular, but also in coffee. Depending on the pesticide, they stay in the organism for different lengths of time.

You can read more about the risks here: Pesticides: What you need to know about herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.

Where do pollutants occur naturally?

Green tomatoes can contain the pollutant solanine.
Green tomatoes can contain the pollutant solanine. (Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / WagnerAnne)

The pollutants presented so far get into the environment and thus into the food through humans. People want to produce more, so factory farming and the use of fertilizers are encouraged. Humans produce waste that has to be burned, causing pollutants to end up in the air. These can also be found in the food.

According to the consumer center, however, there are also natural pollutants that occur in food. These often serve the plant to protect itself from predators. The toxins are mostly destroyed by heating the food. Especially in children, however, a smaller amount of these substances is sufficient to cause poisoning. A larger amount is usually required for adults. Natural toxins include:

  • hydrogen cyanide in apricot kernels or bitter almonds: Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, but also shortness of breath are part of prussic acid poisoning. But as an adult you have to eat 50 to 60 raw, bitter almonds. Bitter almonds are sometimes found in baked goods. Due to the heating in the oven and the small amounts, consumption is harmless.
  • phasine in raw beans: phasin belongs to the group of lectins. These protein compounds are found in many fruits and vegetables. This substance can be found especially in raw kidney beans. Symptoms of poisoning range from mild stomach upset and intestinal inflammation to death.
  • solanine in green potatoes and tomatoes: Solanine is formed when potatoes are poorly stored and is found in unripe tomatoes. You should therefore make sure that you store potatoes in such a way that they do not sprout. It is best to store them in a cool, dry and dark place. If you eat the peel, it is best to only use fresh, undamaged potatoes. You should remove green and germinating areas over a large area. If the tomatoes are still green, wait until they ripen to avoid consuming solanine. Solanine poisoning manifests itself in the form of vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
  • oxalic acid in rhubarb, spinach, chard, beetroot, sweet potatoes, bamboo shoots and cocoa: oxalic acid reduces the bioavailability of minerals, especially calcium, magnesium and iron. Disturbances in the calcium metabolism can occur and have a negative effect on the kidneys. Oxalic acid makes it difficult for the intestines to absorb iron. Children whose bones are still forming or older people whose bones are already in the process of breaking down should be cautious about taking oxalic acid.
  • morphine in poppy seeds: Morphine belongs to the group of opiates, which are prescription painkillers. The side effects of this are varied and range from addiction to respiratory arrest. Elevated levels of morphine in poppy seeds are probably related to harvesting techniques. Manufacturers are working to reduce the morphine content in poppy seeds through improved manufacturing conditions. Until then, poppy seeds (especially without heat treatment) should not be consumed excessively.
  • phytic acid in whole grains and oilseeds: phytic acid can also reduce mineral absorption (especially iron and zinc). That’s why you don’t have to do without whole grain products, because compared to white flour products, whole grain products contain more nutrients.

What can you do about toxins in food?

Buy preferably organic products to reduce pollutants.
Buy preferably organic products to reduce pollutants. (Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / PhotoMIX Company)

With a few tips you can prevent yourself from consuming harmful substances through your food. Here is a little orientation:

  • Basically, you should wash your fruit and vegetables before eating them. Among other things, this dissolves residues of chemical-synthetic pesticides. More tips here: Washing fruit properly: what to do about pesticides on the skin?
  • In general, if you heat something, toxins can be killed. This is the case, for example, with hydrocyanic acid, morphine and phasin. For phasin in beans, the poison is destroyed after 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. To avoid taking morphine, you can wash the poppy seeds beforehand and heat them in the oven for ten minutes at around 80 to 90 degrees top/bottom heat. If you bake a poppy seed cake, the morphine will also be rendered harmless. The poison from the hydrogen cyanide also evaporates from the food after cooking (boiling point at 26 degrees).
  • In the case of organic fruit, vegetables or coffee, the use of chemical-synthetic pesticides is generally avoided.
  • According to the consumer center, significantly fewer antibiotics are used in meat products that come from organic farming. Organic animal husbandry is less performance-oriented and therefore gentler on the animals. EU legislation on organic farming severely limits the use of antibiotics. In addition, many organic farmers make a conscious decision not to use antibiotics. With the purchase of organic meat, organic eggs and organic milk you can contribute to a significant reduction in the use of antibiotics.
  • When you grow your own fruits and vegetables, you can control exactly what ends up on your plate.
  • By not eating meat products, you have one less source of pollutants in your body. You can avoid antibiotics and dioxin in this way. With a diet that’s on Organic and vegan products based, you can reduce pollutants in your food and also support ecological agriculture.
  • Find out what’s in your food: You can use an app to check which ingredients are in your food. Next to code check there is also other ingredient appschecking the ingredients for you.


  • Plastic packaging: How many pollutants end up in the food?
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  • How banned pesticides still end up on our plates


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