Pesticides in Food

          Since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s best selling book, Silent Spring, which essentially launched the environmental movement, the use of synthetic pesticides to control pests has been a major issue to the public as well as various heath and environmental groups.  Today, the toxicity of various pesticides is well recognized to reach beyond specific target organisms, affecting both wildlife as well as human health.  Specifically, exposure to pesticides has been associated with a variety of health problems, ranging from mild headaches and fatigue to more severe cancers, birth defects, reduced fertility, and nerve damage.  In spite of the damage caused by pesticides, however, the use of these toxic chemicals remains rampant in both the United States and abroad, and in some cases is even increasing.  Consequently, pesticides are found everywhere in the environment and can be measured in the blood and urine of nearly every human being on earth!

          While it is virtually impossible to completely eliminate pesticides from your grocery bag, an extremely simple and effective way to reduce your exposure to such chemicals is through the consumption of organic rather than conventionally grown produce.  In the United States, organic products can be easily identified at your local market by a label which reads “USDA Organic.,” indicating that the product has been grown and handled in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  This Act applies not solely to products bearing this label, but to all food products sold or label as organic in the United States.  Provisions of the Act require that organic produce is grown and handled without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  This is not to guarantee organic produce will be devoid of synthetic chemicals since synthetic chemicals can still appear in old soils as well as drift between fields.  Instead, because the Act ensures organic food be grown according to specified practices, we can expect far less synthetic contaminants in organic produce.  It should be noted that consuming organic produce, while reducing your direct exposure to pesticides via consumption, can also reduce your indirect exposure as organic farms are less likely to contaminate the waters we use for drinking and recreation.
            Studies investigating the link between produce consumption and pesticide exposure have shown significantly reduced levels of pesticide residues in people consuming organic produce compared with those who consume conventionally grown produce.  One study based in Seattle measured organophosphate pesticide residues in the urine of preschool children and found that levels were 6 times higher in children whose diets consisted of conventionally grown produce compared with children whose diets consisted of organically grown produce.  When the diets of highly exposed children were shifted from conventional to organic, their pesticide levels dropped dramatically.  Upon reverting back to their original diets, levels of pesticide residues in their urine once again increased.  Another study reviewing various food pesticide databases reported that organically grown products contained one-third the amount of pesticide residues as found in conventionally grown products.  Additionally, the study concluded that organic foods were about 10 times less likely to contain multiple types of pesticide residues in a single product.

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


Honey: Where’d All the Pollen Go??

          According to a study conducted for Food Safety News, most honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t true honey.  This is because of a process known as ultra-filtration which filters out the pollen.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that any honey that has been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey.  That said, the agency has been slow to test honey and prevent false labeling.  Of all the samples tested from major stores such as Costco, Safeway, Sam's Club, Walmart, and Target, over 75% did not contain pollen.  What’s more, of the honey sampled from drug stores (Walgreens, CVS, Right-Aid) as well as small single-use packets at fast food restaurants (McDonalds, KFC, etc.), 100% did not contain pollen.

Why is honey ultra-filtered?
There is no reason for ultra-filtering honey except to mask its identity (removing pollen makes it virtually impossible to detect where honey came from).  For the most part, it’s believed that ultra-filtered honey comes from China.  By masking its origin, China can avoid paying expensive import tariffs and indirectly sell cheap honey to the U.S.  This is bad news for local U.S. honey producers, who are supposed to be protected by such tariffs.

Why is pollen important?
Probably due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, raw honey and pollen has been shown to improve certain stomach ailments and is also believed to improve certain allergic conditions. 

How Do I Buy Real Honey?
Results of the study showed that 100% of honey purchased at farmers markets, co-ops, and "natural" stores like Trader Joe's had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.  In general, honey labeled as “organic” is more likely to contain pollen.  Of the organic honey analyzed in this study, over 70% contained heavy amounts of pollen.

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


Canned Food Study

            A couple months ago I blogged about the toxicity of plastic water bottles due to BpA and other chemical exposures.  It’s important to be aware, however, that plastics are not the only major source of BpA exposure.  People are also exposed through consuming canned food and beverages.  This is because BpA is used to line the insides of these cans prior to packaging.  As a reminder, BpA can interfere with metabolic processes and cause reproductive health problems, and is therefore important to avoid.  Together, by reducing your consumption of canned foods and soft drinks, and by avoiding certain plastics (see previous article), you can successfully avoid the two greatest sources of human BpA exposure!
            I can personally attest to the effect these exposures have on BpA levels in the body.  About six months ago, I participated in a Harvard study assessing BpA exposure through canned soup consumption.  For two separate weeks during the study period, us “subjects” were fed either fresh soup or canned soup for lunch.  Our urinary BpA levels were then analyzed for comparison.  Average BpA levels were 1000% higher following canned soup consumption compared to fresh soup consumption.  My personal BpA levels were about 25 times higher during the week that I consumed canned soup!  These valuable study results were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  By sharing this information, I hope I’ve demonstrated that small changes in your daily habits can in fact translate to enormous reductions in the amount of harmful chemicals to which your are exposed.

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


Antioxidants Explained

          So I’ve written a couple blogs that have mentioned the beneficial effects of antioxidants.  Thanks to your feedback, I’ve decided to dedicate a blog to explaining what exactly antioxidants are, why they’re beneficial, and how you can acquire them through your diet.

           To begin, it’s important to know that because of oxygen, our atmosphere is highly reactive.  This means that the air we breathe is both good and bad for us.  So we can thank oxygen for life, however, we can also thank it for producing many of the diseases which ultimately lead to death.  Fortunately, we have antioxidants to help counteract many harmful oxygen-induced effects.
            When we take a breath, a very complex set of chemical reactions take place in our bodies which enable us to produce and store energy.  During these processes, however, a small amount of oxygen is converted to a toxic form that is damaging to our cells.  Without getting too scientific, these “oxygen radicals,” as they are called, cause damage by stripping electrons and hydrogen atoms from neighboring molecules in our cells.  This is where the beauty of antioxidants comes into play!  Antioxidants are chemicals that donate electrons and hydrogen atoms to hungry oxygen radicals, thus sparing our cells from their harmful effects.  Without antioxidants, we would be much more prone to cancers, heart attacks, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and other ailments.  I suppose you can think of antioxidants as chemicals that sacrifice themselves for the sake of our health.
            While your body has evolved its own set of antioxidant defense systems, it’s important to supplement this by consuming foods high in antioxidants.  Below is a list of some antioxidant-rich foods.  Remember that processed foods generally contain fewer antioxidants and that organic fruits and vegetables tend to have higher antioxidant levels than those that are conventionally grown.

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Orange-Colored Food:
  • Carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, oranges, mangoes, pumpkin, and apricots
Dark-Green, Leafy Vegetables:
  • Spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli, dandelion greens, and turnip greens
Redish-Colored Food:
  • Tomatoes, blood oranges, grape fruit, berries, watermelon, cherries
  • Milk, eggs, almonds, blueberries, grains, peas

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                                                                                    -Shahir Masri


Alzheimer’s: How Donating Blood Reduces Your Risk

          While iron is extremely important to our bodies, too much iron can be a bad thing.  We’ve all heard that antioxidants are good for your body.  Well this is because they “fight” oxidizing agents, which are harmful to your health.  Well, in certain instances, iron is an oxidizing agent.  Since our bodies are efficient at storing iron, various iron reserves tend to accumulate throughout one’s life.  Studies have in fact linked disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease with high levels of iron in the brain.  So what can you do?  Well because so much iron is contained in the red blood cells of your body, it’s a good idea to donate blood every once in a while.  When your body is forced to regenerate these blood cells, it calls upon its iron reserves to do so.  This in turn reduces your body’s iron, including that which is stored in your brain.  This health tip is even more important for guys, as high iron tends to be more common in males (most likely due to the female menstrual cycle).  For a list of places to donate blood, simply use your Google skills.  The American Red Cross and other organizations are always happy to accept your blood donation, and it’s completely free!  Aside from reducing your iron reserves, you can also manage your iron intake by eating less meat, as this is where much of our body iron comes from.  To understand why oxidizing agents are bad and why antioxidants are good, and for a list of foods which are high in antioxidants, stayed tuned for my next blog!

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


Mercury and Fish

          In recent years, the consumption of fish has been widely advocated due to the health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids (FAs).  Diets high in fish, however, have also been associated with elevated exposures to toxic chemicals, mainly methyl mercury, and have therefore been linked to adverse health effects.  Such mixed messages have led to much confusion regarding whether or not, or to what extent, fish should be included in one’s diet.  Consequently, many organizations and agencies have published warnings about which fish should be avoided due to high mercury levels.  These messages, however, are limited in that they describe only fish that are bad because of high mercury without describing those that are most healthy due to high levels of FAs.  In this article, I’ve not only listed certain popular seafood to be avoided due to high levels of mercury, but also included fish that are important to good health due to high FA levels.
          For those unfamiliar with the health effects of methyl mercury, this compound is a widely know neurotoxin.  While toxic to adults, it is especially toxic to the developing fetus and therefore should be particularly avoided by pregnant women.  Lower IQ in children whose mothers consumed high-mercury fish while pregnant has in fact been observed in major studies.  Methyl mercury is also linked to heart disease and therefore increased heart attacks.  To the contrary, omega FAs have been shown to improve brain function and reduce heart disease.  This is why it’s important not simply to eat fish low in mercury, but to eat those high in FAs, otherwise you’re missing out on the benefits of fish consumption!  Note that if you don’t like fish, you can still obtain beneficial omega-3 FAs by taking dietary supplements..

High-Mercury (To Avoid):

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Marlin
  • Tuna (yellowfin, ahi, canned albacore)
  • Mackerel (king, Spanish, Gulf)
  • Tilefish
  • Marlin
  • Sea bass (Chilean)
  • Orange roughy
  • Grouper
Low to Moderate Mercury + High-omega FAs (To Eat):

  • Salmon (Atlantic)
  • Herring
  • Trout
  • Flounder
  • Pollack
Other seafood such as tilapia, cod, halibut, lobster, and certain sea bass are okay to eat given their low mercury content, however, since they are not high in FAs, they are not the BEST choices.

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                                                                                                       -Shahir Masri


Whole Grain: What's All the Fuss?

          We’ve all heard that whole grain products are healthy.  Still it seems many people remain unaware as to the variety of health benefits of eating whole grain, and what makes whole grain healthy in the first place.  That said, I thought I’d use this blog to expand on the topic.  If I’ve succeeded, you’ll learn that whole grains are not luxury items, but instead are critical components to good health that should be incorporated into your every meal; ideally replacing far less healthy refined grains. 

What exactly is a whole grain and how do whole grains differ from refined grains?  Basically, a grain consists of three “layers,” each layer consisting of a unique assortment of nutrients.  When a grain food contains the intact grain, or at least all parts of the grain in its original proportions, the food is considered to be a whole grain.  Through the process of refining, however, two layers of the grain are removed.  Historically, refining grain was important as it extended its shelf life, making grain ideal for storing and transport.  It was not known at the time that refining had important health implications!  In today’s day, however, transportation is rapid, storage is less necessary, and the disadvantages of eating refined grain are well documented.

What are the “nutrient” differences between whole grain and refined grain?  Containing not only more vitamins and minerals than refined grain, whole grain foods have been shown to have high antioxidant properties; in fact, more so than even your average fruit or vegetable!  Whole grains also contain phytonutrients, which are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases as discussed below.  Most phytonutrients as well as antioxidants, dietary fiber, and many important vitamins are unfortunately removed when grain is refined.  

What are the health benefits of eating whole grain over refined grain?
  1. Cancer Prevention: Phytonutrients as well as other compounds contained in whole grains have been associated with a lower risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer.  Also, antioxidants are known to prevent a variety of cancers.
  2. Diabetes: In general, eating whole grains is well associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.  Mainly because compounds such as saponins and lectins found in whole grains lower plasma glucose and insulin.  Studies also suggest that whole grain intake may improve insulin sensitivity. 
  3. Heart Attack: Studies have consistently shown a strong relationship between eating whole grains and a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes.  This is mainly because whole grain intake tends to reduced blood pressure.
  4. Weight Loss: Over 14 major studies have reported whole grain consumption to be associated with a reduced risk of obesity and weight gain.  This is partially because digesting whole grains affects hunger hormones such that a person is not as quick to become hungry following a whole grain meal.  It’s also because digesting whole grains affects metabolism and therefore energy storage differently than refined grains. 
  5. Cholesterol:  Whole grains contain compounds such as plant sterols and stenols which are known to lower blood cholesterol by reducing cholesterol absorption.
How much whole grain should I eat?  It’s recommended that a person eat three or more 1-ounce servings of a whole grain product per day.  However, don’t just add whole grains to your diet.  Instead, eat whole grains as a substitute for refined grains (otherwise you’re adding unnecessary calories to your diet). 

What are some common whole grains?  These include whole wheat, whole oats, brown rice, corn, barley, whole rye, and other grains that are less common.  Popcorn is even a whole grain, although I’m not sure the buttery version is very good for health.  Most whole grains can be consumed in the form of products such as whole wheat bread, cereal, pastas, and crackers.  This makes it very easy to eat whole grains.  If you want to barbeque, use whole wheat buns.  If you want to cook Italian, use whole wheat pasta.  And so on.  I know some people argue that whole grain doesn’t taste as good.  I actually think it tastes pretty similar, and it’s definitely worth it in the long term.  Look for products that say “100% whole ___” as many products are advertise as whole grain even though they contain only some whole grain.

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


Barbequed Meat: A Health Tip

          In recent decades, growing evidence has mounted regarding the health effects of a group of compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which are generated on the surfaces of meats cooked at excessively high temperatures (i.e. frying, grilling, and barbequing).  Among the most mutagenic substances ever studied, HCAs have been implicated as a cause for several cancers in humans including breast, prostate, pancreatic, as well as colorectal cancer.  Unfortunately, popular muscle meats such as beef, pork, fowl, and fish are all subject to HCA formation as a result of these cooking practices.  However, since HCA formation is temperature dependent, meat that is well done or slightly burned will tend to have higher levels of HCAs than that which is prepared medium or rare.  Fortunately, there are tricks to cooking that will limit HCA levels in the meat you cook without forcing you to abandon your favorite cooking practices.  One helpful tip is provided below.

Reducing Your Exposure via Microwave Pretreatment

            A useful technique for reducing HCA formation involves the brief microwaving of meat prior to cooking.  Following this process, juices produced by the meat are to be drained and discarded.  Though you may think such juices are made up solely of water and fat, they in fact contain the key precursors to HCA production; namely, amino acids, glucose, and creatine.  By removing these substances prior to cooking, you are reducing the potential for HCAs to form.  One study showed that microwaving a beef patty for two minutes and discarding the resulting juices prior to cooking reduced total HCA levels by a factor of three when cooking at 200 °C and a factor nine when cooking at 250 °C, this is an enormous reduction!

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                                                                                                             -Shahir Masri


Conserving Energy for Better Health

          How does flipping on your light switch affect your health?  To answer this, consider the way electricity is generated.  Typically, plants generate electricity using superheated water or steam to drive the rotation of turbines.  In much of the United States, power plants burn coal and natural gas (NG) in order to heat this water.  Known as fossil fuels, coal and NG unfortunately contain a number of toxic compounds such as mercury.  When plants burn fossil fuels, these chemicals are released into the atmosphere and in turn affect our health.  If you think you’re not at risk simply because you don’t live near a power plant, think again.  These compounds, when released into the air, are rather efficiently transported around the world via jet streams and other weather systems.  That said, since the industrial revolution, global mercury concentrations have increased 3 to 6 times that of estimated pre-industrial levels. 

          To improve health as a population, it’s important to minimize air pollution generated by our energy industry by making an effort to cut unnecessary energy wasting in your home and workplace.  Some tips to reduce such waste are listed below.  Please write other good tips in the “comments” section!

  1. Avoid leaving random house lights on in rooms which nobody is occupying. 
  2. Unplug your cell phone chargers from the wall when you’re not charging your phone (the charger by itself uses electricity). 
  3. Replace your conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).  They use less power and often last longer!
  4. Don’t blast your AC when you’re not home.
  5. Purchase energy-efficient appliances and unplug appliances that are rarely used.
  6. Push congress to tighten power plant emissions regulations and explore cleaner energy options by contacting your state representatives.
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                                                                                                 -Shahir Masri


Broccoli and Cancer

           To no surprise, the food we eat plays an integral role in determining our fitness and health.  Interestingly, broccoli, while perhaps not a favorite among people, has demonstrated remarkable disease-preventing qualities.  This vegetable contains a chemical called sulforaphane (SP) which, through experimentation, has been shown to protect against harmful bacteria.  Most notably, SP destroys H. pylori, a bacteria associated with inflammation, stomach cancer, and ulcers.  While antibiotics are often effective in combating H. pylori, this bacteria can evade such treatment by entering cells on the stomach walls only to reemerge post-treatment.  Studies at Johns Hopkins University, however, show that SP kills these bacteria even when “hiding” in stomach-wall cells.  What’s more, the concentrations of SP needed to achieve such a benefit can be obtained by eating broccoli (as opposed to an SP supplement).  Scientists have also found SP to inhibit stomach cancer in mice.  Unfortunately, boiling tends to reduce the presence of SP in broccoli.  Other methods of cooking such as steaming and stir frying, however, do not greatly reduce SP levels.
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                                                                                                               -Shahir Masri


Toxic Water Bottles

               In the last decade, there has been rapidly growing public concern surrounding the use of certain types of plastic water bottles due to the discovery that some plastics leach potentially harmful chemicals.  Most notably, bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates have been shown to leach from polycarbonate as well as other plastics and in turn contaminate beverages.  In animal studies, both compounds have produced reproductive health problems.  What’s more, BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and can therefore interfere with metabolic and developmental processes.  That said, all of the negative attention on plastic bottles and their associated toxicants seems to have generated unnecessary confusion in the public as it relates to discerning which plastics are toxic and which are safe.  Below, I have composed a list to reduce this confusion.  By simply looking at the recycling code on plastic products, this list will enable you to determine whether a plastic is safe.


........................................ Not known to contain BPA or phthalates, but contains antimony (a possible carcinogen*)     
........................................ Not known to contain BPA or phthalate 

........................................ May contain phthalates

........................................ Not known to contain BPA or phthalates

........................................ Not known to contain BPA or phthalates

........................................ Not known to contain BPA or phthalates

......................................... Contains BPA

            Note from the above list that Code 1 plastics contain a possible carcinogen (a carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer).  Code 1 plastics are generally used to manufacture single-use water bottles, peanut butter jars, mouthwash bottles, etc., and are characterized by their clear, smooth, flexible design.  With respect to Code 1 water bottles, because they can release antimony and other chemicals from their plastic, experts do not recommend using them for repeated use.  In fact, washing them can abrade the plastic and in turn lead to the release of more chemicals.  In general, if you’d like a bottle to reuse for drinking, which I recommend since it’s both healthier and cheaper, it’s best to abandon plastic all together.  I drink from a stainless steel bottle.  These bottles have become quite popular and are now sold almost everywhere!
            Code 7 plastics are shown in the picture above.  These polycarbonate plastics are characterized by their clear, hard, shatterproof design and are often used to make reusable water bottles.  While BPA-free bottles are now widely available, I personally remain skeptical of code 7 plastics as it is unclear as to what chemical has replaced BPA in the manufacturing process and to what extent this chemical might cause other health problems.

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                                                                                    -Shahir Masri


Vaccines and Autism


           The primary source of ethyl mercury, and the source which has gained the most attention as it relates to this chemicals role in public health, is through vaccinations.  For a number of decades, a compound known as Thimerosal has been used as a preservative in numerous types of vaccines.  It is this preservative which contains the ethyl mercury ion and is in turn the source through which most people, in particular children, are exposed. 
            The reason for incorporating a preservative into vaccine formulas in the first place is to prevent microbial growth in the event that a vaccine is to become contaminated; usually through repeated puncture of multi-dose vials.  Though Thimerosal has been used in various biological products, including vaccines, since the 1930’s, it was not until 1968 that the requirement for using such preservatives in multi-dose vaccines was officially incorporated into the United States Code of Federal Regulation.  In recent years, however, the U.S. has taken many steps in transitioning to Thimerosol-free vaccines; sometimes switching to single-dose vials that do not require preservatives (A single-dose vial refers to a vial which is good for administering only a single dose of vaccine.  Since a single-dose vial is not repeatedly punctured for multiple uses, there is virtually no likelihood for contamination and therefore no need for a preservative to kill pathogens).  Most countries, however, have yet to make this transition. 
            What is likely of greatest concern to many families as it relates to ethyl mercury exposure, due in great part to the media attention it has received, is the association between childhood vaccines and autism; specifically, those vaccines administered to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) diseases.  This association, however, is still dubious at best.  In fact, when the Institute of Medicine formed an Immunization Safety Review Committee to investigate this link several years back, the committee concluded that the data did not support any such link between vaccinations and autism.  Now this cannot guarantee that vaccinations have no relation to autism as there is always the possibility in science that a study may simply have failed to pick up on given association. Given the best available evidence to date, however, there is no reason to believe that vaccines are linked with autism. That said, fearing to approve your child’s vaccination is not justified by the weight of research on this topic. The likely reason parents attribute their child’s autism to vaccines in the first place is due to a coincidence that autism becomes detectable at about 2 years of age (when deficiencies in a child's speech are first apparent), the same time when children receive MMR vaccines.
            Regarding this topic, it is worth noting that measles, mumps, and rubella were three previously devastating diseases which have now been controlled in many places thanks to their vaccines (preventing thousands of deaths in the United States alone!). Furthermore, the importance of Thimerosal in such vaccines is also worth noting as there have been numerous instances of children dying within days of receiving unpreserved vaccinations later found to be contaminated with living bacteria.  In short, neither vaccines nor Thimerosal should be discredited as both substances have played critical roles in saving lives.  If you are still inclined to avoid this preservative, however, there are a couple of options you have which do not require avoiding vaccinations altogether.

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                                                                                                    -Shahir F. Masri


Pesticides: Natural vs. Synthetic


         Pesticides can be both synthetic as well as natural in origin.  Also known as botanical pesticides, natural pesticides are those which plants have evolved as a defense to ward off threatening organisms.  As a result, such pesticides can have a variety of different sources in the environment, depending on the species of plants from which particular pesticides originate, and the prevalence of those plants in the environment.  Aside from in nature, natural pesticides are also formulated in factories and marketed to the public for use in home gardens, farms, etc.  Consequently, sources of such pesticides are crops or plants which either naturally produce or have been sprayed with these chemicals, including much of the produce which winds up in our local markets.
            While the term “natural” may have a positive ring, it is important to realize that natural does not mean harmless.  Rather, many natural and synthetic pesticides share a common goal; that is, to kill or otherwise incapacitate.  What’s more, while synthetic pesticides are usually designed to target specific organisms, botanicals are often broad-spectrum pesticides, killing both harmless and harmful species alike.  Having said that, natural pesticides generally breakdown quickly outdoors and therefore pose less of a threat in the environment over time.
            Synthetic pesticides are often natural pesticides which have been slightly modified by chemical processes in order to increase their toxicity and stability in the environment.  As with natural pesticides, sources of synthetic pesticides include much of the produce we eat as well as any other plants or crops which have been sprayed with such chemicals.  Due to the stability of synthetic pesticides, however, these chemicals can persist in the environment for extremely long periods of time.  As a consequence, these chemicals can contaminate water bodies, sediments, and soils, as well as work their way up the food chain, thus contaminating meat products.  Sources of synthetic pesticides are therefore much more widespread than those of natural pesticides.  Of the most notable sources as it relates to meat consumption are upper predatory marine species such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, and certain species of bass.

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                                                                                            -Shahir F. Masri