Cadmium & Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods

Cadmium & Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods
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Though the most concentrated sources of the toxic metal cadmium are cigarette smoke, seafood, and organ meats, does greater consumption from whole grains and vegetables present a concern?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Cadmium is known as a highly toxic metal that represents a major hazard” to human health. It sticks around in our body for decades, because our body has no efficient way to get rid of it, and may contribute to a variety of illnesses, including “heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.” Most recently, data suggests that cadmium exposure may impair cognitive performance even at levels once thought to be safe.

Recent studies suggest “cadmium exposure may produce adverse health effects at lower exposure levels than previously predicted,” including increased risk of hormonal cancers. For example, researchers on Long Island estimated that about 40% of breast cancer in the U.S. may be associated with elevated cadmium levels.

“Inhalation of cigarette smoke is one of the major routes for human [exposure to cadmium].” Seafood consumption is another “dominant route” of human exposure in this study—even more so than from cigarette smoke. The highest levels, though, are found in organ meats. But, you know, how many horse kidneys can you eat? Because people eat so few organs, grains and vegetables actually end up contributing the largest amount.

But, wait a second. “…[w]hole grains and vegetable[s]…are among the major dietary sources of fiber, phytoestrogens, [and] antioxidants” that may protect against breast cancer. And, indeed, even though the risk of breast cancer goes up as women consume more and more cadmium, even though on paper, most cadmium comes from grains and vegetables, breast cancer risk goes down, the more and more whole grains and vegetables women eat.

So, maybe the animal-sourced cadmium is somehow worse? Or, the benefits of plant foods just overwhelm any adverse effects of the cadmium? This study may have helped solve the mystery. It’s not what we eat; it’s what we absorb.

“[Cadmium] bioavailability from animal-based foods [may be] higher than…from vegetable-based foods.” There appears to be something in plants that inhibits cadmium absorption. In fact, if you add kale to your boiled pig kidneys, you can cut down on the toxic exposure. Just one tablespoon of pig kidney, and we may exceed the daily safety limit—unless we eat kale, in which case we could eat a whole quarter-cup. “[T]he pronounced effects of the inhibitory factors in kale…point[s] out the importance of vegetable foods in terms of prevention of health hazard[s] from [cadmium] ingested as mixed diets in a real situation.”

“Even if a vegetarian diet contains more lead and cadmium than a mixed diet, it is not certain that it will give rise to higher uptake of the metals…because the absorption of lead and cadmium is inhibited by [plant compounds such as] fibre and phytate.” And, it’s not just in lab animals. Having whole grains in our stomach up to three hours before we swallow lead can eliminate 90% of absorption—thought to be due to phytates in whole grains, beans, and nuts grabbing onto it.

So, vegetarians may have lower levels, even though they have higher intakes. “In fact, a significant decrease in the hair concentrations of lead and cadmium [was seen] after the change from [an omnivorous] to [a] vegetarian diet…, indicating a lower [absorption] of the metals.”

Here’s that study. They took folks eating a standard Swedish diet, and put them on a vegetarian diet. Lots of whole unrefined plant foods; no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and junk food that was discouraged.

Here’s where they started out: a measure of their mercury levels, cadmium level, and lead levels in their bodies. Within three months on a vegetarian diet, their levels significantly dropped, and stayed down for the rest of the year-long experiment. But then, they came back three years later—three years after they stopped eating vegetarian. And, what did they find? Their levels of mercury, cadmium, and lead shot back up.

Since the cadmium in plants is based on the cadmium in soil, plant-eaters that live in a really polluted area, like Slovakia, which has some of the highest levels, the so-called “black triangle” of pollution, thanks to the chemical and smelting industries. Those who eat lots of plants there can indeed build up higher cadmium levels, especially if you eat lots of plants. It’s interesting. “In spite of the significantly higher blood cadmium concentrations as a consequence of a greater cadmium intake from [polluted plants], all the antioxidants in those same plants were found to help “inhibit [the] harmful effects of higher free radical production” caused by [the] cadmium exposure.

Still, though, in highly polluted areas, it might be an especially good idea not to smoke, or eat too much seafood or organ meats. But, even if we live in the Slovak Republic’s black triangle of pollution, the benefits of whole plant foods would outweigh the risks. In highly polluted areas, zinc supplements may decrease cadmium absorption. But, I’d recommend against multi-mineral supplements, as they have been found to be contaminated with cadmium itself.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to NASA via Wikimedia

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Cadmium is known as a highly toxic metal that represents a major hazard” to human health. It sticks around in our body for decades, because our body has no efficient way to get rid of it, and may contribute to a variety of illnesses, including “heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.” Most recently, data suggests that cadmium exposure may impair cognitive performance even at levels once thought to be safe.

Recent studies suggest “cadmium exposure may produce adverse health effects at lower exposure levels than previously predicted,” including increased risk of hormonal cancers. For example, researchers on Long Island estimated that about 40% of breast cancer in the U.S. may be associated with elevated cadmium levels.

“Inhalation of cigarette smoke is one of the major routes for human [exposure to cadmium].” Seafood consumption is another “dominant route” of human exposure in this study—even more so than from cigarette smoke. The highest levels, though, are found in organ meats. But, you know, how many horse kidneys can you eat? Because people eat so few organs, grains and vegetables actually end up contributing the largest amount.

But, wait a second. “…[w]hole grains and vegetable[s]…are among the major dietary sources of fiber, phytoestrogens, [and] antioxidants” that may protect against breast cancer. And, indeed, even though the risk of breast cancer goes up as women consume more and more cadmium, even though on paper, most cadmium comes from grains and vegetables, breast cancer risk goes down, the more and more whole grains and vegetables women eat.

So, maybe the animal-sourced cadmium is somehow worse? Or, the benefits of plant foods just overwhelm any adverse effects of the cadmium? This study may have helped solve the mystery. It’s not what we eat; it’s what we absorb.

“[Cadmium] bioavailability from animal-based foods [may be] higher than…from vegetable-based foods.” There appears to be something in plants that inhibits cadmium absorption. In fact, if you add kale to your boiled pig kidneys, you can cut down on the toxic exposure. Just one tablespoon of pig kidney, and we may exceed the daily safety limit—unless we eat kale, in which case we could eat a whole quarter-cup. “[T]he pronounced effects of the inhibitory factors in kale…point[s] out the importance of vegetable foods in terms of prevention of health hazard[s] from [cadmium] ingested as mixed diets in a real situation.”

“Even if a vegetarian diet contains more lead and cadmium than a mixed diet, it is not certain that it will give rise to higher uptake of the metals…because the absorption of lead and cadmium is inhibited by [plant compounds such as] fibre and phytate.” And, it’s not just in lab animals. Having whole grains in our stomach up to three hours before we swallow lead can eliminate 90% of absorption—thought to be due to phytates in whole grains, beans, and nuts grabbing onto it.

So, vegetarians may have lower levels, even though they have higher intakes. “In fact, a significant decrease in the hair concentrations of lead and cadmium [was seen] after the change from [an omnivorous] to [a] vegetarian diet…, indicating a lower [absorption] of the metals.”

Here’s that study. They took folks eating a standard Swedish diet, and put them on a vegetarian diet. Lots of whole unrefined plant foods; no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and junk food that was discouraged.

Here’s where they started out: a measure of their mercury levels, cadmium level, and lead levels in their bodies. Within three months on a vegetarian diet, their levels significantly dropped, and stayed down for the rest of the year-long experiment. But then, they came back three years later—three years after they stopped eating vegetarian. And, what did they find? Their levels of mercury, cadmium, and lead shot back up.

Since the cadmium in plants is based on the cadmium in soil, plant-eaters that live in a really polluted area, like Slovakia, which has some of the highest levels, the so-called “black triangle” of pollution, thanks to the chemical and smelting industries. Those who eat lots of plants there can indeed build up higher cadmium levels, especially if you eat lots of plants. It’s interesting. “In spite of the significantly higher blood cadmium concentrations as a consequence of a greater cadmium intake from [polluted plants], all the antioxidants in those same plants were found to help “inhibit [the] harmful effects of higher free radical production” caused by [the] cadmium exposure.

Still, though, in highly polluted areas, it might be an especially good idea not to smoke, or eat too much seafood or organ meats. But, even if we live in the Slovak Republic’s black triangle of pollution, the benefits of whole plant foods would outweigh the risks. In highly polluted areas, zinc supplements may decrease cadmium absorption. But, I’d recommend against multi-mineral supplements, as they have been found to be contaminated with cadmium itself.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to NASA via Wikimedia

35 responses to “Cadmium & Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods

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    1. Unlikely: Does organic farming reduce the content of Cd and certain other trace metals in plant foods? A pilot study
      Some does arise from phosphate fertilizer applications in both conventional and organic fertilizer. Florida phosphates have < 10 mg/kg Cd, but Western phosphorites can have up to 174 mg/kg Cd. Poultry litter seems pretty high among manure fertilizers. The highest natural soil Cd levels arise in soils arising from black shales, like the Monterey shale in California and the black shales of Derbyshire, England. (1, 2, 3)

      http://www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/files/2014/05/Cadmium.jpg




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      1. Is it true that fruit absorbs the least amount of cadmium, and maybe we all are better off being exclusive fruit-eaters (with a few additions from time to time)?




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        1. Fruit also is low in other divalent minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc), deficiencies of which may increase uptake of cadmium. Its this, I suspect, most at play in that Slovokian study. There are other weird but instructive results. This study, for example, found tofu had the most robust association with blood cadmium among non-smokers. That makes sense in that cadmium is likely a contaminant in many commodity divalent minerals, like the calcium sulfate (gypsum) used to make tofu.




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          1. Hi Darryl, what about soy from China …. is it Cd-rich? All soybeans in Canada appear to come from China, at least those for commercial consumption. There is one product that doesn’t (a very expensive form of edamame).




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            1. Chinese soil cadmium is a state secret. Chinese soil and rice Cd was was considerably lower than Japanese samples in 2000, but who knows if those samples were representative. Being downhill/river from a black shale deposit can increase cadmium many fold, and China does have shale.

              Soy isn’t a Cd hyperaccumulator, like Solanaceae plants are. I’ve assumed most soy is U.S. and South American, as China now imports most soy for its animal feeding operations. Whether that’s also true for the non-GMO organic certified soy in most health food products, I don’t know.




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      2. I’m so, so sorry BUT ………………….. Organic makes THE DIFFERENCE!!! I am forty years old and I developed brain cancer at sixteen. After life altering symptoms and a brain scan confirming the abnormality my family and I treated the tumor with H2O2. This DID NOT eliminate what CAUSED me to develop the tumor. With prayers, time and investing in finding answers, we changed the way I ate and lived which slowed the process of my initial disease, Autoimmune Poly endocrine Syndrome Type I and II. In a nutshell, my ENTIRE immune system weakened and almost shut down completely. After my immune system attacked my major organs I was left with Type I Diabetes, Addison’s Disease, ITP Anemia, Crone’s Disease and a few other issues. I am NOT supposed to be alive. I was able to function in the working world for about ten years then left to find out WHY my immune system was killing me. In addition to investigating my family tree and finding initial genetic proclivities that made me a prime target for this disease, I found the DETERMINING factor for my descent into illness and disease ………………… TOXICITY. This is the case for EVERY disease suffered by EVERY human on the face of the Earth. While eliminating the factor of immediate trauma illness, some of us arrive at our ‘toxic load’ quicker than others and disease results. Genetic vitality also goes hand in hand with this. For some, they can be exposed to the most noxious levels and types of toxicity and still live to be of old age and function normally while others like me have to change their entire existence at a very early age. Notice the trend of cancer over the last one hundred years. It’s increase fits ‘hand in glove’ with increase in toxicity in daily life. I live and thrive now because I changed every aspect of my life and made it as toxic free as humanly possible. EVERY aspect of my life had to be examined and over the past five years NOTHING has benefited me greater than ALL ORGANIC, OVER 90% PLANT BASED EATING HABITS. So, ORGANIC MAKES A MASSIVE DIFFERENCE!!!!!




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        1. The question I responded to was, “Does organic certification reduce food cadmium levels.” I’ve no doubt many health benefits are attributed to organic crops.

          Given established farmers have little control over the source rock for their soil, airborne cadmium from nearby industry, and nearly all phosphate fertilizers have some cadmium contamination, it appears the main means available for farmers to reduce cadmium uptake is to use phosphate fertilizers with lower cadmium levels (Jordanian phosphate, at present), reduce soil acidity with lime, and choose plant cultivars bred to reduce cadmium accumulation. These steps can be taken by both conventional and organic farmers.




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          1. If there was a misunderstanding, I apologize ………… BUT that’s not the way the question was posed to you nor the way you responded to the question. Bottom line, even with the standards of organic certification, commercialized organic foods do make a HUGE difference. I believe the mistake is being made when we look as isolated contaminants. Once a plant is grown as close to completely organic as possible, there are mechanisms in place which we cannot see or understand that literally render harmful compounds in the plant powerless against the human body. The same way vitamin C in an orange will always be superior to vitamin C in a bottle because it is being ingested as a WHOLE with all elements properly organized and attached to each other.

            EVERYONE is out to make money even those who offer the healthiest of foods. I have yet to acquire enough farm land to support both me and my family’s nutritional needs so I simply buy the best there is and if everyone does this, the health care system will only exist to service accidents and other trauma medical needs.




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            1. Cynysha: Here is some information that I find the most helpful in understanding the issue of organic plants.

              “A new study calculated that if half the U.S. population ate just one more serving of conventional fruits and vegetables, 20,000 cases of cancer could be prevented. At the same time the added pesticide consumption could cause up to 10 extra cancer cases. So by eating conventional produce we may get a tiny bump in cancer risk, but that’s more than compensated by the dramatic drop in risk that accompanies whole food plant consumption. Even if all we had to eat was the most contaminated produce the benefits would far outweigh any risks.”

              from: from: http://nutritionfacts.org/2013/06/25/apple-peels-turn-on-anticancer-genes/

              To those 10 people, the issue is huge. But to the population as a whole, there are bigger issues to focus on. I find that perspective helpful.

              I’m glad you are doing so much better now. Good luck!




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              1. Hello and thank you for your comment and response!! Based on this study and its findings, I am not being given SPECIFICS. That makes more of a difference than is truly understood. For the group outside of the populous that experienced the ‘tiny bump’ of an overgrowth of cancer cells, there are many, many other mitigating factors. How much psychological stress were they experiencing, how heavy was the toxicity in their immediate environment and what were they coming in contact with every day? Cancer is a result of a ‘cumulative’ effect. In fact, in the persons that did not develop the cancer cell overgrowth and consumed conventionally grown produce, were they incorporating habits that thwarted cancer in general such as trust, relaxation, positive home environments? Also, what were the genetic factors involved? Once one can implement large amounts of plant based foods into their lives on a daily basis, this is great. To make sure these plants are without herbicides, pesticides and as close to organic as possible is always superior.




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    2. Hello. I just wanted to give you my story to show you JUST HOW MUCH organic makes THE DIFFERENCE!!! I am forty years old and I developed brain cancer at sixteen. After life altering symptoms and a brain scan confirming the abnormality my family and I treated the tumor with H2O2. This DID NOT eliminate what CAUSED me to develop the tumor. With prayers, time and investing in finding answers, we changed the way I ate and lived which slowed the process of my initial disease, Autoimmune Poly endocrine Syndrome Type I and II. In a nutshell, my ENTIRE immune system weakened and almost shut down completely. After my immune system attacked my major organs I was left with Type I Diabetes, Addison’s Disease, ITP Anemia, Crone’s Disease and a few other issues. I am NOT supposed to be alive. I was able to function in the working world for about ten years then left to find out WHY my immune system was killing me. In addition to investigating my family tree and finding initial genetic proclivities that made me a prime target for this disease, I found the DETERMINING factor for my descent into illness and disease ………………… TOXICITY. This is the case for EVERY disease suffered by EVERY human on the face of the Earth. While eliminating the factor of immediate trauma illness, some of us arrive at our ‘toxic load’ quicker than others and disease results. Genetic vitality also goes hand in hand with this. For some, they can be exposed to the most noxious levels and types of toxicity and still live to be of old age and function normally while others like me have to change their entire existence at a very early age. Notice the trend of cancer over the last one hundred years. It’s increase fits ‘hand in glove’ with increase in toxicity in daily life. I live and thrive now because I changed every aspect of my life and made it as toxic free as humanly possible. EVERY aspect of my life had to be examined and over the past five years NOTHING has benefited me greater than ALL ORGANIC, OVER 90% PLANT BASED EATING HABITS. So, ORGANIC MAKES A MASSIVE DIFFERENCE!!!!!




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  1. Since plant food protects against cadmium but animal food doesn’t, isn’t this further evidence that the natural diet for humans is plant and not animal?




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  2. Yes, cadmium in cigarette smoke. I am wondering what effect plants have on detoxing the chemicals in electronic/vapor cigarettes. People are smoking these in airplane bathrooms, and there is no way to detect it. Second hand vapor, chemicals innocents then breathe in. Can plants prevent this?

    Latest concerns are that hard-core street drugs are able to be smoke via “vapor” devices. Anyone up for breathing in second-hand heroin, crack, meth, etc. in the airport, airplane, restaurant?And no known way to detect. I surely hope Dr. G finds the plant that protects us. The human body does its part, regardless. Hopefully that is enough.




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    1. The nicotine extracts in most e-cigarettes should include far less of the carcinogens and heavy metals in conventional cigarettes, though they of course have all the addiction potential and health concerns of pure nicotine. The most interesting concern I’ve read is that the solder used for vaporizer wires can release aerosolized tin.




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      1. Yeah, what is likely around the corner is widespread (and not able to be detected or identified by the average person) use of vapor devices to smoke crack, heroin, synthetic drugs, and others in public situations. A mom could be sitting at a table in a restaurant and there is some guy smoking what seems to be an electronic cigarette but it is actually pot, crack, meth. etc. – some pretty toxic second-hand vapor drifting about the restaurant. Another reason to order something healthy. Maybe airplanes will start serving fruits and vegetables to counteract the second-hand vapor of drugs coming from the bathroom.




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    1. “Cadmium is persistent in cacao and coffee products” So 2 of my favorite daily “boosters” have high levels of cadmium. In a sane world…all food would be tested for heavy metals and pesticides/herbicides? But not here in bizarro world…where corporations control most things for their profit potential? And our current Prez pushes GMOs.




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      1. But if you are plant-based, your levels of cadmium are going to be so low, that the small amount of cadmium absorbed from those foods are probably not going to be a serious concern. That’s how I’m looking at it.




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    2. Geoffrey: I do not understand your concern with cadmium in cacao. How is cacao any different than other plant foods which are also relatively high in cadmium? The video says that plant foods protects us from the cadmium, and cacao is a plant…

      Here is a quote from the video: “There appears to be something in plants that inhibits cadmium absorption. … Even if a vegetarian diet contains more lead and cadmium than a mixed diet, it is not certain that it will give rise to higher uptake of the metals, because the absorption of lead and cadmium is inhibited by plant components such as fibre and phytate.”

      I’m not arguing with you. I’m just wondering what you are thinking.

      And thanks for the link. I found it very interesting.




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      1. EP_2012: Good point!

        It’s also interesting how (I believe) people on the paleo diet believe that phytates is a reason to stay away from grains where as here we see yet another example of how phytates are shown as a benefit.




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  3. Are you being prejudiced towards supplements since all supplements are not created equal. Referring to Mega Foods supplements.




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  4. It’s called ‘the retention factor’. I first learned about it from the Health Ranger, Mike Adams. Over the past few years, Mike Adams established and literally put together a very high technology food lab with state of the art and very sensitive machinery that literally breaks down any and all types of food just as the human stomach would. Once the foods were broken down Adams was able to measure almost every conceivable nutrient, toxin, heavy metal and anything else one could think of in order to see just how much of these things we’re ingesting in our food and it’s effects on our bodies. The results were literally MIND BLOWING!!! Here is where I heard Mike Adams describe ‘the retention factor’. He was able to confidently confirm through decisive and exact research that even with the high levels of toxicity in pesticides and herbicides in commercial agriculture, plant foods were able not only to RETAIN these toxic heavy metals, they were able to further clean out the body of other heavy metals present. So that means in persons who consume high levels of animal protein that may be very heavily contaminated with toxic heavy metals (i.e. sushi) once they consistently ingested large amounts of plant life on a daily regular basis (preferably raw in a smoothie) they can actually cleanse their bodies of these high levels of poison. UNBELIEVABLE!!! This information caused me to eliminate ALL non organic animal protein, first and foremost, and now I am eliminating my final favorite of the animal kingdom, organic turkey. I believe in God, and I know that even with the toxic overload man has put himself under, God has provided a means by which we can still benefit greatly from food even from inorganic sources.

    Imagine …… we can get all of these benefits from conventional plant life so going organic at every possible turn is even that much more beneficial!!!!




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  5. Would it be a good idea for the mayor of Flint, Michigan to watch this video and encourage a plant base diet for the people of Michigan who have drank the water with the lead in it?




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  6. I ordered some poppy seeds to make [poppy seed rolls](http://homecookingadventure.com/images/recipes/poppy-seed-and-walnut-rolls.jpg), a traditional dessert in many eastern and central European countries.

    That said, I’ve never had quite that amount of poppy seeds before – just sprinkled on a muffin or in cookies – and I was curious about the health effects. After a google search, it appears that poppy seeds actually contain a large amount, 0.739 mg/kg, of cadmium (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3705772), which concerns me since there is a LOT of poppy seed in the filling.

    The recipe I was looking at involved 300g of poppy seeds in the filling, which would imply 0.2217mg of cadmium in the roll on average. And if there are ten servings (being realistic as to serving size), that works out to 0.02217mg/serving. The EPA’s reference dose (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=6&po=7) for cadmium is 0.001mg/day. So that means a single serving of poppy seed roll has over 22 times the reference dose of cadmium?

    Are poppy seed rolls/cakes just a delicious way to get heavy metal poisoning, or am I missing something? I would think with a dessert this common I could find more people talking about it, but I turn up very little on google. Are poppy seeds one plant source of cadmium that is simply too polluted to be tolerable in diet?




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    1. Thanks for the info, although it may have some fibre in it that attenuated the negative effect, some precaution should be given due to the high amount of cadmium.

      Dr Greger has also addressed an upper limit for poppy seeds intake in another video, which I highly recommend you to watch (see here).

      Hope this answer helps.




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      1. I saw that video, but it was specifically referencing morphine/codeine content; I’m not really worried about that at all (I can just wash+cook them, and I don’t need to take a drug test), so much as the risk of accumulating lots of cadmium on my body…

        It seems surprising to me that such a common dish might have such a high amount of a toxin with essentially no information about it easily available.




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