The warnings about the negative health impacts of consuming food grown using pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals echo across the food movement landscape, with research to back up those claims.
But insufficient studies exist to explain the effects of food nutrients on toxicity. For example, what effect does dietary folate have on arsenic elimination?
Environmental nutrition is a relatively new area of study that seeks to understand the intersection between environmental health and nutrition. Kim Robien, IonE resident fellow and associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the School of Public Health, and colleagues are working to improve the tools used to conduct such research.
In the April 17 Frontiers in the Environment seminar, “Are All Tomatoes Created Equal? Maybe It’s Not Just What We Eat but How Our Food Gets to the Table That Matters for Health,” Robien explained the limitations of current research.
Data come primarily from cell culture and animal models, not live humans, she said, and there aren’t data on combined toxicity and nutrient interactions. Most studies focus on acute toxicity as a result of high-dose exposure, but they need to be looking at chronic low-dose exposure as well.
Large studies are needed to evaluate interactions between diet and environmental exposure. But such studies can be cost-prohibitive — and with participants self-reporting using multiple-choice surveys, results are broad and imprecise. For example, with current tools, the participants’ responses can capture nutrient content of the food they consume, but not whether it was cooked, raw, canned or organic, said Robien.
Robien and her colleagues are developing data collection tools that better capture data on both nutrient and environmental exposures.
Monique Dubos is a freelance writer and photographer. She currently works at the University of Minnesota.