The Human Digestive System

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Digestion is a complex process of transforming food you eat into energy you need to survive, as well as, creating waste to be eliminated from the body.

The digestive tract (gut) is a long twisting tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. It is made up of many muscles that coordinate the movement of food and other cells that produce enzymes and hormones to aid in the breakdown of food. Along the way are three other organs that are needed for digestion: the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.

the human digestive system

The colon (large intestine) is a 5-7 foot-long muscular tube that connects the small intestine to the rectum. It includes the ascending (right) colon, the transverse (across) colon, the descending (left) colon and the sigmoid colon which connects to the rectum. The appendix is a small tube attached to the ascending colon. The large intestine is a highly specialized organ responsible for processing waste and facilitating defecation (excretion of waste).

After you eat, it takes about 6-8 hours for food to pass through your stomach and small intestine. Food then enters your large intestine (colon) for further digestion, absorption of water and, finally, elimination of undigested food.


Stool (waste left over after digestion) passes through your colon by means of peristalsis,* first in a liquid state and eventually in solid form. As stool passes through the colon, any remaining water is absorbed. Stool is stored in the sigmoid (S-shaped) colon until a “mass movement” empties it into the rectum, usually once or twice a day.

It normally takes about 36 hours for stool to pass through the colon. Stool itself is mostly food debris and bacteria. These bacteria perform several useful functions, such as synthesizing various vitamins, processing waste products and food particles, and protecting against harmful bacteria. When the descending colon becomes full of stool, it empties its contents into the rectum to begin the process of elimination.

*Peristalsis (Etymology: Gk, peri + stalsis, contraction): Successive waves of involuntary contraction passing along the walls of the hollow muscular digestive tract and forcing the contents onward; coordinated, rhythmic serial contraction of smooth muscle that forces not only food through the digestive tract, but also bile through the bile duct, and urine through the ureters.

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Reduce Your Risk of Constipation

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

What is constipation?

Constipation is a symptom, not a disease, associated with hard, dry bowel movements or when you go longer than usual in between bowel movements. It is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week. With constipation stools are usually hard, dry, small in size, and difficult to eliminate. Some people may find it painful to have a bowel movement and often experience straining, bloating, and the sensation of a full bowel. Others assume they are constipated if they do not have a bowel movement every day. However, normal stool elimination may be three times a day or three times a week, depending on the person. Almost everyone experiences constipation at some point in their life, and a poor diet usually is the cause. Most constipation is temporary and not serious. Understanding its causes, prevention, and treatment will help most people find relief.
Lower Digestive System

Drawing of the lower gastrointestinal tract inside the outline of a man’s torso. Inset of the lower gastrointestinal tract with the cecum, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, and rectum labeled.

Signs and symptoms of constipation:
  • Difficulty pushing out bowel movement
  • Pain or bleeding during bowel movement
  • A feeling that you did not finish having your bowel movement
  • Nausea
  • Full feeling
  • Headache
What causes constipation?
  • Not eating enough high-fiber foods: Fiber is important in maintaining a soft, bulky stool. Diets low in fiber and/or high in fat can cause constipation. The best natural sources of fiber are fresh fruits and vegetables, bran, whole-grain cereals, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts and seeds.
  • Not drinking enough water
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Pain medicine, medicine used to treat depression or high blood pressure, and others (see below).
  • Medical conditions, such as hemorrhoids, diabetes, or a stroke
  • Habit: Bowel movements are under voluntary control. Therefore, the normal urge people feel when they need to have a bowel movement can be suppressed. Occasionally, it is appropriate to suppress an urge to defecate (for example, when a bathroom is not available), but doing this too frequently can reduce the natural urge and result in constipation.
  • Laxatives: One suspected cause of severe constipation is the over-use of stimulant laxatives (for example, senna [Senokot], castor oil, and certain herbs). An association has been shown between chronic use of stimulant laxatives and damage to nerves and muscles of the colon. Some researchers believe that the damage is responsible for constipation. It is not clear, however, whether laxatives initiated the damage or whether the damage existed prior to the use of laxatives and caused the laxatives to be used. Nevertheless, because of the possibility that stimulant laxatives can damage the colon, most experts recommend that stimulant laxatives be used as a last resort after non-stimulant treatments have failed.
  • Hormones and hormonal disorders can affect bowel movements: Too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) and too much parathyroid hormone (raising calcium levels in the blood) can cause constipation; At the time of a woman’s menstrual periods, estrogen and progesterone levels are high and may cause constipation (this is rarely a prolonged problem); High levels of estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy can cause constipation.
  • Diseases affecting muscle and/or nerve function of the colon, such as diabetes, scleroderma, intestinal pseudo-obstruction, Hirschsprung’s disease, Chagas disease, cancer or a narrowing (stricture) of the colon that blocks it, can all cause a decrease in the flow of stool.
  • Central nervous system diseases: Some diseases of the brain and spinal cord may cause constipation, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries.
  • Colonic inertia: A condition in which the nerves and/or muscles of the colon do not work normally. As a result, the contents of the colon are not propelled through the colon easily. The cause of colonic inertia is unclear. In some cases, the muscles or nerves of the colon are diseased. Colonic inertia may also result from chronic use of stimulant laxatives, as described above. In most cases, however, there is no clear cause for the constipation.
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction (“outlet obstruction or outlet delay”): A condition in which muscles of the lower pelvis that surround the rectum (pelvic floor muscles) do not work normally. These muscles are critical for a bowel movement. It is unknown why these muscles fail to work properly in some people, but they can make the passage of stools difficult, even when everything else is normal.

Cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products have a reputation of being “binding” or constipating foods, due to the high-fat and low-fiber content of many of these products. Dairy products made from milk can constipate many individuals, particularly toddlers.

Dairy Products
Foods to avoid to reduce constipation:
  • Red meat
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Fried foods
  • Cakes, cookies, chips
  • Frozen dinners (Low in fiber, high in fat and salt)
  • Unripened green bananas (However, ripe bananas are very high in soluble fiber, which can help to push waste through the bowels and relieve constipation.)
Medications which can cause constipation:
  • Pain medications (especially narcotics)
  • Antacids that contain aluminum and calcium
  • Blood pressure medications (calcium channel blockers)
  • Antiparkinson drugs
  • Antispasmodics
  • Antidepressants
  • Iron supplements
  • Diuretics
  • Anticonvulsants
Lifestyle changes may help reduce constipation:
  • Get plenty of exercise each day: Regular physical activity can help stimulate your intestines. Brisk walks, dancing, swimming, taking stairs instead of elevators, bicycling, etc.). Set yourself an achievable goal such as a 30-minute walk each day and stick to it. Being more active will increase general health and should make the gut work more effectively. Studies show that exercise increases nitric oxide levels, which may alleviate constipation. Low nitric oxide levels may explain both constipation and hypertension in pregnant women and the elderly. Talk to your caregiver about the best exercise plan for you.
  • Drink plenty of water and increase your consumption of liquids: Constipation occurs when too much moisture is reabsorbed from feces. Adults should drink between 9-13 eight-ounce cups of liquid every day. Ask your doctor what amount is best for you if you have a health problem. For most people, good liquids to drink are water, juice, milk, and herbal teas.
  • Eat a variety of high-fiber foods: Fiber provides bulk and softness to your bowel movement. It also accelerates the movement of food through the GI tract. Both insoluble and soluble fiber will benefit constipation. Healthy foods include fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meat, and fish. Figs and prunes are an option and are high in fiber. Ask your caregiver for more information about a high-fiber diet. Increase dietary fiber slowly to reduce bloating and gas, and drink more water to help flush the fiber through your digestive tract.
  • Select breakfast cereals with approximately 10 grams of fiber per 100 grams: But do watch cereal salt content.
  • Eat more legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables on a daily basis: They are rich in fiber and nutrients, including magnesium, which help alleviate constipation.
  • Avoid refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, and rice, and select whole-meal or whole-grain varieties instead: Whole grains provide more fiber and nutrients which not only help protect against constipation but may also prevent insulin surges and reduce the risk of diabetes.
  • Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day: A variety of fruits and vegetables provides different kinds of fibers and enhances the body’s ability to fight free radicals by providing a variety of different antioxidants with different roles to play in the body. Remember that those dried and canned count too.
  • Try to have a bowel movement at the same time each day: The best time is 15-45 minutes after breakfast, because eating helps to stimulate the colon. This may help train your body to have regular bowel movements.
  • Always allow enough time to have a bowel movement and don’t ignore the urge to have one: Bend forward while you are on the toilet to help move the bowel movement out. Sit on the toilet at least 10 minutes, even if you do not have a bowel movement.
  • Cut down on caffeine and alcohol: Both are diuretics that can dehydrate you. Caffeine is a stimulant which normally promotes muscle contraction needed for a bowel movement, but drinking too much in place of water and other liquids can lead to  dehydration. Sometimes switching to decaffeinated coffee helps. Drink more water instead.
  • Do not overeat: Smaller meals are easier to digest and may benefit digestive health more than larger meals. Try eating more than three “petite” meals a day and see how you feel. Avoid eating late at night, since the body has more trouble digesting food while you are sleeping.
  • Use over-the-counter remedies with caution: If you do try them and they work but constipation returns, do not continue using them as a long-term solution. Consult your family physician first.
  • Eat more natural probiotics to help balance the good and bad bacteria in your digestive system: Active cultures in yogurt and kefir may help assuage constipation and even reduce the risk of colon cancer. If you are magnesium-deficient, consider a magnesium supplement as well.
Treatments to discuss with your doctor:
  • Dietary fiber or fiber supplements (add bulk and softness to your bowel movement). Drink more water whenever you increase dietary fiber or take such supplements.
  • Bowel movement softeners.
  • Laxatives help intestines relax and loosen.
  • When a medication is causing constipation, your health care provider may suggest that you stop taking the medication or switch to a different medication.

Laxative medications and enemas may be recommended for people who have made diet and lifestyle changes and are still constipated. Laxatives taken by mouth are available in liquid, tablet, powder, and granule forms:

  • Bulk-forming agents: Brand names include Metamucil, FiberCon, Citrucel, Konsyl, and Serutan. Bulk-forming agents absorb fluid in the intestines, making stools bulkier, which helps trigger the bowel to contract and push stool out. These supplements should be taken with water or they can cause obstruction. Bulk-forming agents are generally considered the safest laxative, but they can interfere with the absorption of some medications. Many people also report no relief after taking bulk-forming agents and suffer from bloating and abdominal pain.
  • Osmotic agents: Brand names include Milk of Magnesia, Fleet Phospho-Soda, Cephulac, Sorbitol, and Miralax. Osmotic agents help stool retain fluid, increasing the number of bowel movements and softening the stool. These laxatives are usually used by people who are bedridden or cannot take bulk-forming agents. Older adults and people with heart or kidney failure should be careful when taking osmotic agents, because they can cause dehydration or a mineral imbalance.
  • Stool softeners: Brand names include Colace, Docusate, and Surfak. Stool softeners help mix fluid into stools to soften them. Stool softeners may be suggested for people who should avoid straining in order to pass a bowel movement; they are often recommended after childbirth or surgery.
  • Lubricants: Brand names include Fleet and Zymenol. Lubricants coat the surface of stool and help the stool hold in fluid and pass more easily. Lubricants are simple, inexpensive laxatives that may be recommended for people with anorectal blockage.

Other types of laxatives include:

  • Stimulants: Brand names include Correctol, Dulcolax, Purge, and Senokot. Stimulant laxatives cause the intestines to contract, which moves stool. Stimulants should be reserved for constipation that is severe or has not responded to other treatments. People should not use stimulant laxatives containing phenolphthalein, as phenolphthalein may increase the likelihood of cancer. Most laxatives sold in the United States do not contain phenolphthalein.
  • Chloride channel activators: Lubiprostone (Amitiza) is a chloride channel activator available with a prescription. This type of laxative increases fluid in the GI tract. Lubiprostone has been shown to be safe when used for 6-12 months.

People who depend on laxatives to have a bowel movement need to talk with their health care provider about how to slowly stop using them. For most people, stopping laxatives restores the colon’s natural ability to contract.


People with chronic constipation caused by problems with the anorectal muscles can use biofeedback to retrain the muscles. Biofeedback uses special sensors to measure bodily functions. The measurements are displayed on a video screen as line graphs and sounds indicate when the person is using the correct muscles. A health care provider uses the information to help the person modify or change abnormal function. The person practices at home and may need to continue practicing for 3 months to get the most benefit from the training.

Surgery may be needed to correct an anorectal blockage caused by rectal prolapse. Surgical removal of the colon may be an option for people whose colon muscles do not work properly, causing severe symptoms that do not respond to treatment. However, the benefits of this surgery should be weighed against possible complications, which include abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Contact your health caregiver if:

  • Your constipation is getting worse.
  • You have fever and abdominal pain with the constipation.
  • You start vomiting.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.
  • Seek care immediately or call 911 if you have blood in your bowel movements.

Please note that regular screening, beginning at age 50, is a key to preventing colorectal cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for colorectal cancer using high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy beginning at age 50 years and continuing until age 75 years.

People at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer should begin screening at a younger age, and may need to be tested more frequently. The decision to be screened after age 75 should be made on an individual basis. If you are older than 75, ask your doctor if you should be screened.

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When adding fiber to your diet, drink plenty of extra water while you slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet. If you have bloating or gas, you probably have eaten too much and need to reduce the amount of fiber you eat for a few days.

What is fiber?

  • Fiber is an essential nutrient needed by the human body. It aids digestion and elimination of waste in the body and helps us control caloric intake. Fiber is considered a complex carbohydrate because it contains multiple linked glucose molecules. Since your digestive system cannot break down fiber, it is excreted undigested.
  • Most of our stool is made up of bacteria. Fiber provides the bacteria a good place to grow. The interaction results in a larger volume of stool and better bowel function.
  • High fiber foods are important for good health and well-being and can actually help reduce your risk of constipation, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity, colon cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
  • The best sources of fiber are whole grain foods, whole fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and nuts and seeds.
  • If you have diverticulitis, some types of fiber can make your symptoms worse.

Fiber is divided into two categories, functional fiber and dietary fiber. Soluble and insoluble fiber are two types of dietary fiber.

What are the different types of fiber? 

  • Functional fiber: A carbohydrate that is not digested and has physiological health benefits, such as blood sugar stability. Functional fiber, a growing trend in the food industry, is fiber that has been isolated and extracted from plant or animal sources or is synthetic. It is added to drinks and food products to boost their fiber content. Gums, pectins, polydextrose, and inulin are functional fibers.
  • Dietary fiber: Fiber found naturally in the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. It includes carbohydrate and lignin (non-carbohydrate or woody component of fruits or vegetables; cellulose is an example of a lignin) that your body cannot digest or use for energy. Dietary fiber is “roughage” which helps with the bulking of stools and waste elimination. Because it makes you feel full faster, it can help you control weight.
  • Soluble fiber: Dietary fiber that dissolves in water, forming a gel in the body that slows fat absorption and provides a feeling of fullness. Some soluble fibers are more prebiotic and viscous than others and form thicker gels which work well to slow digestion and the movement of food through the digestive system. Slower digestion enables blood sugars to be released more slowly into the body, thus helping to regulate (lower) blood glucose levels for people with diabetes. Soluble fibers also lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. With the exception of psyllium fiber, they do not have a laxative effect. Soluble fibers include the soft, sticky component found in oats, barley, beans, and the “meat” of fruits, which helps to lower cholesterol and soften waste, so it can pass through your system more easily.
  • Insoluble fiber: Dietary fiber that does not dissolve in water or form a gel. It adds bulk to stool. Bulking fibers absorb water as they move through your digestive tract, easing defecation. also helps food digest and pass through intestines and stomach more quickly. Insoluble fiber helps to prevent constipation and promotes regularity, since it accelerates the movement of food through your digestive system. It also helps to regulate caloric intake and lowers the risk of heart disease. Insoluble fiber includes the tough component found in whole wheat and the skin, stalks, and seeds of fruits and vegetables that helps to push waste through the GI tract and improve bowel regularity.

Soluble and insoluble fiber are both beneficial to health. What are some sources?

  • Soluble fiber is found in varying quantities in all plant foods, including oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries: Legumes (peas, soybeans, lupins and other beans); oats, rye, chia, barley; some fruits (prunes, plums, avocados, berries, ripe bananas) and the skin of apples, quinces, and pears; certain vegetables (broccoli, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes); root tubers and root vegetables (sweet potatoes, onions); psyllium seed husks and flax seeds; nuts (almonds=highest in dietary fiber).
  • Insoluble fiber: Whole grain foods (wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice); legumes (beans, peas); nuts and seeds; potato skins; lignans; vegetables (green beans, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, celery, nopal); some fruits including avocado and unripe bananas; skins of some fruits (kiwi, grapes, tomatoes)

How much fiber do most people need?

Most Americans eat a low fiber diet, averaging only about 15 grams of fiber a day. For good health, children and adults need at least 20-30 grams of fiber per day daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories to get the maximum health benefits from fiber. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that Americans get 20-35 grams of fiber a day from plant foods, including both soluble and insoluble fiber.

What are the best sources of dietary fiber?

Dietary fiber is found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains. In packaged foods, the amount of fiber per serving is listed on food labels under total carbohydrates. Excellent fiber sources include:

  • Whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Prunes
  • Pears
  • Green peas
  • Legumes (dried beans, split peas, lentils, etc.)
  • Artichokes
  • Almonds

A high-fiber food has 5 grams or more of fiber per serving and a good source of fiber is one that provides 2.5 to 4.9 grams per serving:

  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) of cooked beans (kidney, white, black, pinto, lima) (6.2-9.6 grams of fiber)
  • 1 medium baked sweet potato with peel (3.8 grams)
  • 1 whole-wheat English muffin (4.4 grams)
  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) of cooked green peas (4.4 grams)
  • 1 medium pear with skin (5.5 grams)
  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) of raspberries (4 grams)
  • 1 medium baked potato with skin (3 grams)
  • 1/3 cup (79 milliliters) of bran cereal (9.1 grams)
  • 1 ounce (28 grams) of almonds (3.5 grams)
  • 1 small apple with skin (3.6 grams)
  • ¼ cup (59 milliliters) of dried figs (3.7 grams)
  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) of edamame (3.8 grams)
  • 1 medium orange (3.1 grams)
  • 1 medium banana (3.1 grams)
  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) canned sauerkraut (3.4 grams)

When adding fiber to your diet:

  • Drink plenty of extra water while you slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet. If you have bloating or gas, you probably have eaten too much and need to reduce the amount of fiber you eat for a few days.
  • Try to eat different types of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Read food labels carefully to see how much fiber they have. Choose foods that have higher amounts of fiber.
  • You should eventually eat 20-35 grams of fiber a day.

Tips for increasing dietary fiber:

  • Always try obtain fiber from whole foods, since they contain many other healthful plant compounds. If you are unable to include enough fiber in your diet (about 25 to 38 grams a day is ideal), added functional fibers may help.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices.
  • Eat fruit at every meal.
  • Choose more fruits with edible seeds, skins, and membranes, like apples, grapes, pears, berries, melons, peaches, grapefruits, and oranges.
  • Select vegetables with tough stalks and edible skin, like artichokes, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, dark leafy greens and herbs (ex., bok choy, dandelions, dill, kale, mustard greens, parsley, Swiss chard).
  • Eat whole rather than refined grains like barley, bran, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, brown and wild rice, and 100% whole-wheat versions of bread, pasta, and crackers. Avoid white rice, bread, and pasta.
  • For breakfast, eat cereals that have a whole grain as their first ingredient.
  • Beans, peas and lentils are excellent sources of fiber. Add them to soup, stews, or a green salad.
  • Replace meat with beans (edamame provides complete protein), legumes, or tofu at least 3x a week.
  • Add pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and sauces, mix chopped frozen vegetables into prepared spaghetti sauce, soups, or stews.
  • Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers, or chocolate.
  • Snack on unflavored and unsalted nuts and seeds, or use them to garnish cereal, salads, stir-fries, and yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of extra water to help flush the fiber through your system. Too little water and too much fiber can actually cause bloating, constipation, or a tummy ache!
Refined or processed foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables, pulp-free juices, white breads and pastas, and non-whole-grain cereals, are lower in fiber. Grain-refining removes the outer coat (bran) from grain, which lowers its fiber content. Likewise, removing skin from fruits and vegetables decreases their fiber content.


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Stock image of 'fish in pan with vegetables isolated on white'

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. They contain high-quality lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium, are low in saturated fat, and easy to digest. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart and brain health and children’s proper growth and development. Women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

Unfortunately, almost all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and their respective concentrations of mercury. Fish and shellfish that contain higher levels of mercury may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

Follow these recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, but serve smaller portions to a young child

1. Avoid seafood containing high levels of mercury:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King Mackerel
  • Tilefish
  • Albacore tuna, tuna steaks
  • The FDA has indicated that orange roughy and marlin may be added to this list in the future.

2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average [6 oz.] or 3 small [4 0z.] meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury:

  • Commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are U.S.A. shrimp, Wild Alaskan salmon (fresh and canned), freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.), farmed rainbow trout, pollock, catfish, wild-caught Pacific sardines, anchovies, Sablefish/Black Cod (from Alaska and Canadian Pacific), and canned light tuna.
  • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. Americans get about 1/3 of their methyl mercury exposure from tuna. When choosing 2 meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of canned light tuna per week. (According to the FDA, a limit of  6 ounces per week of albacore tuna is allowed, as long as women do not eat it to the exclusion of low-mercury fish. If you must eat tuna, select canned light tuna over albacore, whenever possible. Otherwise, Michael Bender, the executive director of the Mercury Policy Project advises that pregnant and nursing women avoid tuna altogether.)

3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas: If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (1 average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish that week.

Facts about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish

What is mercury and methylmercury?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.

Why should women of childbearing age be concerned about methylmercury?
If you regularly eat types of fish that are high in methylmercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream over time. Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly. Thus, it may be present in a woman even before she becomes pregnant. This is the reason why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid eating certain types of fish.

Is methylmercury in all fish and shellfish?
Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methyl mercury, because they’ve had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tilefish, and tuna) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA.

What should I do about fish not listed in the advisory?
For more information about the levels in the various types of fish you eat, see the FDA food safety website or the EPA website at

What about fish sticks and fast food sandwiches?
Fish sticks and “fast-food” sandwiches are usually made from fish that are low in mercury.

The advice about canned tuna is in the advisory, but what’s the advice about tuna steaks?
Tuna steak generally contains higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna. When choosing two meals of fish and shellfish, adults may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of tuna steak per week.

What if I eat more than the recommended amount of fish and shellfish in a week?
One week’s consumption of fish does not significantly change the level of methylmercury in the  adult body much. If you eat a lot of fish one week, cut back for the next week or two. Just make sure you average the recommended amount per week.

Where do I learn about the safety of fish caught recreationally by family or friends?
Before you go fishing, check your Fishing Regulations Booklet for information about recreationally caught fish. You can also contact your local health department for information about local advisories. Check local advisories, because some kinds of fish and shellfish caught in your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. This depends on the levels of mercury in the water in which the fish are caught. Those fish with much lower levels may be eaten more frequently and in larger amounts.

Does the FDA advisory apply to fish oil supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids?

No. Supplements do not provide as many health benefits and nutrients as seafood.

 If you have questions or think you’ve been exposed to large amounts of methylmercury, see your doctor or health care provider immediately.


  1. “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish: Advice for Women Who Might Become Pregnant, Women Who are Pregnant, Nursing Mothers, Young Children.” EPA-823-R-04-005. U.S. Food and Drug Administration/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. March 2004. Last updated 05/19/14.
  2. For information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food information line toll-free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or visit FDA’s Food Safety website.
  3. For information about the safety of locally caught fish and shellfish, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s Fish Advisory website or contact your State or Local Health Department. A list of state or local health department contacts is available. Click on Federal, State, and Tribal Contacts. For information on EPA’s actions to control mercury, visit  EPA’s mercury website.
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: 10903 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20993. (Tel.1-888-INFO-FDA or 1-888-463-6332).

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What is fiber?

  • Fiber is an essential nutrient needed by the human body. It aids digestion and elimination of waste in the body and helps us control caloric intake. Fiber is considered a complex carbohydrate because it contains multiple linked glucose molecules. Since your digestive system cannot break down fiber, it is excreted undigested.
  • Most of our stool is made up of bacteria. Fiber provides the bacteria a good place to grow. The interaction results in a larger volume of stool and better bowel function.
  • High fiber foods are important for good health and well-being and can actually help reduce your risk of constipation, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity, colon cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
  • The best sources of fiber are whole grain foods, whole fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, peas, other legumes, nuts and seeds.

How much fiber do most people need?

Most Americans eat a low fiber diet, averaging only about 15 grams of fiber a day. For good health, children and adults need at least 20-30 grams of fiber per day daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories to get the maximum health benefits from fiber. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that Americans get 20-35 grams of fiber a day from plant foods, including both soluble and insoluble fiber.

When increasing fiber in your diet:

  • Increase dietary fiber slowly to reduce bloating and gas.
  • Always try obtain fiber from whole foods, since they contain many other healthful plant compounds. If you are unable to include enough fiber in your diet (about 25 to 38 grams a day is ideal), added functional fibers may help.
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices.
  • Choose more fruits with edible seeds, skins, and membranes, like apples, grapes, pears, berries, melons, peaches, grapefruits, and oranges.
  • Select vegetables with tough stalks and edible skin, like artichokes, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, dark leafy greens and herbs (ex., bok choy, dandelions, dill, kale, mustard greens, parsley, Swiss chard).
  • Eat whole rather than refined grains like barley, bran, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, brown and wild rice, and 100% whole-wheat versions of bread, pasta, and crackers. Avoid white rice, bread, and pasta.
  • For breakfast, eat cereals that have a whole grain as their first ingredient.
  • Beans, peas and lentils are excellent sources of fiber. Add them to soup, stews, or a green salad.
  • Replace meat with beans (edamame provides complete protein), legumes, or tofu at least 3x a week.
  • Add pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and sauces, mix chopped frozen vegetables into prepared spaghetti sauce, soups, or stews.
  • Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips, crackers, or chocolate.
  • Snack on unflavored and unsalted nuts and seeds, or use them to garnish cereal, salads, stir-fries, and yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of extra water to help flush the fiber through your system. Too little water and too much fiber can actually cause bloating, constipation, or a tummy ache!


Fresh & Dried Fruit Serving Size Fiber (g)
Apples with skin 1 medium 5.0
Apricot 3 medium 1.0
Apricots, dried 4 pieces 2.9
Banana 1 medium 3.9
Blueberries 1 cup 4.2
Cantaloupe, cubes 1 cup 1.3
Figs, dried 2 medium 3.7
Grapefruit 1/2 medium 3.1
Orange, navel 1 medium 3.4
Peach 1 medium 2.0
Peaches, dried 3 pieces 3.2
Pear 1 medium 5.1
Plum 1 medium 1.1
Raisins 1.5 oz box 1.6
Raspberries 1 cup 6.4
Strawberries 1 cup 4.4
Grains, Beans, Nuts & Seeds Serving Size Fiber (g)
Almonds 1 oz 4.2
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 13.9
Bran cereal 1 cup 19.9
Bread, whole wheat 1 slice 2.0
Brown rice, dry 1 cup 7.9
Cashews 1 oz 1.0
Flax seeds 3 Tbsp. 6.9
Garbanzo beans, cooked 1 cup 5.8
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 11.6
Lentils, red cooked 1 cup 13.6
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 8.6
Oats, rolled dry 1 cup 12.0
Quinoa (seeds) dry 1/4 cup 6.2
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 8.4
Pasta, whole wheat 1 cup 6.3
Peanuts 1 oz 2.3
Pistachio nuts 1 oz 3.1
Pumpkin seeds 1/4 cup 4.1
Soybeans, cooked 1 cup 8.6
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 3.0
Walnuts 1 oz 3.1
Vegetables Serving Size Fiber (g)
Avocado (fruit) 1 medium 11.8
Beets, cooked 1 cup 2.8
Beet greens 1 cup 4.2
Bok choy, cooked 1 cup 2.8
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 4.5
Brussels sprouts, cooked 1 cup 3.6
Cabbage, cooked 1 cup 4.2
Carrot 1 medium 2.6
Carrot, cooked 1 cup 5.2
Cauliflower, cooked 1 cup 3.4
Cole slaw 1 cup 4.0
Collard greens, cooked 1 cup 2.6
Corn, sweet 1 cup 4.6
Green beans 1 cup 4.0
Celery 1 stalk 1.1
Kale, cooked 1 cup 7.2
Onions, raw 1 cup 2.9
Peas, cooked 1 cup 8.8
Peppers, sweet 1 cup 2.6
Pop corn, air-popped 3 cups 3.6
Potato, baked w/ skin 1 medium 4.8
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 4.3
Summer squash, cooked 1 cup 2.5
Sweet potato, cooked 1 medium 4.9
Swiss chard, cooked 1 cup 3.7
Tomato 1 medium 1.0
Winter squash, cooked 1 cup 6.2
Zucchini, cooked 1 cup 2.6

Choose fiber-rich foods for a healthy body weight, good cholesterol, normal blood sugar levels, and the ability to “go” on a regular basis.


“Fiber, Total Dietary (g) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, sorted by nutrient content.” USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 2012.

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Woman drinking water.
The Institute of Medicine recommend that men achieve a daily fluid intake of around 3 liters and that women take in 2.2 liters.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that adults consume 20-35 grams of fiber a day. Americans tend to consume only 15 grams a day on average (2). People often eat too many refined and processed foods from which the natural fiber has been removed. If you are prone to constipation, limit foods that are salty, have added sugars and sweeteners, and have little or no fiber, such as high-fat foods like ice cream, cheese, meat, chips, cold cuts, cakes, cookies, crackers, and other processed foods. Fiber promotes stool regularity and vacates the body with impressive efficiency. Try to include more high-fiber foods in your meals, such as those listed below, as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables that are naturally hydrating (apples, berries, grapefruits, oranges, melons, peaches, pears, green leafy vegetables, squash):

Examples of Foods That Have Fiber

Beans, cereals, and breads Fiber
½ cup of beans (navy, pinto, kidney, etc.), cooked 6.2–9.6 grams
½ cup of shredded wheat, ready-to-eat cereal 2.7–3.8 grams
⅓ cup of 100% bran, ready-to-eat cereal 9.1 grams
1 small oat bran muffin 3.0 grams
1 whole-wheat English muffin 4.4 grams
1 small apple, with skin 3.6 grams
1 medium pear, with skin 5.5 grams
½ cup of raspberries 4.0 grams
½ cup of stewed prunes 3.8 grams
½ cup of winter squash, cooked 2.9 grams
1 medium sweet potato, baked in skin 3.8 grams
½ cup of green peas, cooked 3.5–4.4 grams
1 small potato, baked, with skin 3.0 grams
½ cup of mixed vegetables, cooked 4.0 grams
½ cup of broccoli, cooked 2.6–2.8 grams
½ cup of greens (spinach, collards, turnip greens), cooked 2.5–3.5 grams

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.

High-fiber foods pack fewer calories per pound compared to low-fiber foods, such as meat and processed foods so common in a Western diet. A diet high in insoluble fiber from whole grains, beans, vegetables and vegetable skins, seeds and nuts also provides a feeling of satiety without contributing many calories.

Always increase your water consumption as you increase fiber in your diet: 

  • Drinking water and other liquids, such as fruit and vegetable juices and clear soups, may make fiber in the diet more effective in normalizing bowel function and maintaining regularity.
  • The Institute of Medicine states that an adequate intake (AI) for men is roughly 3 liters (about 13 cups) of total beverages a day and for women 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) of total beverages a day. Another common recommendation is to drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other fluid every day (about 1.9 liters). But some adults may need more or less, depending on how healthy they are, how much they exercise, and how hot and dry the climate is.
  • To calculate how many ounces of water your body needs daily while at rest (working at a desk, puttering around the house, reading), divide your body weight in half. If you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day if you’re not doing anything strenuous. This is the bare minimum water requirement for your body to function properly. If you are working out, hiking, at a high altitude, or outdoors a great deal, you should drink more than 100 ounces. Add another liter of water with 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt to ensure proper electrolyte replenishment.
  • A health care provider can offer addditional advice about how much a person should drink each day based on the person’s health and activity level and where the person lives.

You may need to drink more water than usual if you:

  • Exercise intensely, especially in a hot climate.
  • Are outdoors a great deal.
  • Sweat profusely.
  • Are sick, such as with a fever, flu, or have a health problem like a urinary tract infection.
  • Are pregnant or breast-feeding.

The easiest way to know if you’re drinking enough fluid:

  • Observe the color of your urine. If you’re drinking enough water, your urine will be clear or pale yellow. A darker yellow means you aren’t drinking enough water.
  • People who drink enough water also usually have soft bowel movements. Hard bowel movements or constipation can be signs that you aren’t getting enough water.

If you have any health problems, always talk to your doctor before increasing the amount of water you drink. You may need to limit your fluids if you have certain health concerns, such as kidney problems or heart failure.


  1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Slavin JL. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: health implications of dietary fiber.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Volume 108:1716–1731. 2008.

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Genetically engineered (GE) crops and food ingredients were first introduced during the mid 1990’s. The agricultural chemical industry created GE crops with the promise of significantly higher crop yields. While crop yields may have risen, the contribution of GE technology is a matter of considerable debate. Some groups attribute increased yields to improvements in conventional agriculture (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009). Any benefits offered by GE technology have been overshadowed by the increased use of toxic pesticides and proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds.

All of us have the right to know if our food has been genetically engineered. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not require labeling of GE foods or ingredients to enable shoppers to make informed decisions. However, more than 60 other nations, including France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Russia, China and the United Kingdom, do require GE labeling (Center for Food Safety, 2013a)!

What crops are genetically engineered?
Genetically engineered crops include corn, canola, soybean, sugar beets, and cotton. They are typically used to make ingredients that are added to various food products, such as cornstarch in soups and sauces, corn syrup as a general purpose sweetener, and cottonseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil in mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads, and snack foods.

More than 75% of food in supermarkets is genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients (Center for Food Safety 2013b). To avoid GE ingredients, look for the 4 most common GE foods and ingredients:

  • Field corn and corn-derived ingredients: The U.S. is the world’s largest corn producer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American farmers planted more corn last year than any other crop, covering 95 million acres (USDA 2013a). Some 90% of corn grown in the U.S. is GE (USDA 2013b). Most of the crop is field corn cultivated for animal feed, but about 12% is processed into corn flour, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, masa, corn meal, and corn oil that end up in foods consumed by people (EPA 2013). Consumers should assume that those ingredients in processed food are GE. Less than 1% of the American corn crop is sweet corn, also known as table corn (Iowa State University 2011).
  • Soybeans and soybean-derived ingredients: Soybeans are the second most planted American crop, covering more than 76 million acres last year (USDA 2013a). About 93% of soybeans grown in the U.S. have been genetically engineered (USDA 2013b). Soybean-based products and soybean-derived ingredients are common on supermarket shelves.  Consumers should assume that products whose labels disclose the presence of soy proteins, soybean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soy sauce, tofu, or soy lecithin have been made with GE ingredients, unless they are certified organic or GE-free.
  • Sugar: About 55% of sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, 95% of which have been genetically engineered (USDA 2013c). If a product label does not specify that it has been made with “pure cane” sugar, it most probably contains GE beet sugar.
  • Vegetable oils: Consumers should assume that vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil and corn oil are GE. About 90% of American oilseed production is soybeans, which are almost entirely GE (USDA 2013b). The remaining 10% of oilseed crops are cottonseed, sunflower seed, canola, rapeseed, and peanut. Canola and cottonseed oil primarily come from GE varieties. More than 90% of corn oil is made from GE corn.
Foods that may be or become GE:
  • Papaya: More than 75% of Hawaiian papaya is GE to resist the ringspot virus (Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association 2013).
  • Zucchini and yellow summer squash: A few varieties of squash are GE. Without adequate labeling, it’s hard to spot GE varieties. If you want to be sure, opt for organic varieties.
  • Sweet corn: Most sweet corn sold in supermarkets and farm stands is not grown from GE seeds, but a few varieties are, so it’s best to buy organic sweet corn.
  • Salmon, flax, plums, potato, radicchio, rice, tomato and wheat: Many other GE foods may be coming soon to a grocery store near you. These have either been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or are being considered for approval: salmon, flax, plums, potato, radicchio, rice, tomato and wheat (FDA 2014).
  • The FDA is considering a producer’s application for GE AquAdvantage salmon: Normal salmon produce growth hormones only in summer months. These fish produce them year-round and grow at twice the normal rate. If the FDA approves AquAdvantage salmon, it will be the first GE animal available in American supermarkets.
  • Apples: The FDA faces two other controversial decisions: whether to approve apples genetically modified to not to turn brown when sliced, peeled, or bruised and new varieties of corn and soybean genetically modified to resist the toxic herbicide 2,4-D (USDA 2013e, 2013f).

Reasons to avoid eating genetically engineered ingredients include environmental and human hazards:

  • Unintended harm to other organisms: Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins lethal to insect larvae. These crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the European corn borer. Studies indicate that pollen from B.t. corn causes high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Although monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, if pollen from B.t. corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in nearby fields, the caterpillars could eat the pollen and perish. Unfortunately, B.t. toxins kill many species of insect larvae; it is not possible to design a B.t. toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects.
  • The federal government requires strict safety evaluations before new drugs go on the market but does not mandate similar safety studies for GE crops: Testing for carcinogenicity, harm to fetuses, or risks over the long term to animals and humans is not required for GE foods by the government. Few studies have been conducted by independent scientific institutions.
  • Reduced effectiveness of pesticides: Just as some mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, insects may become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
  • Superweeds and more toxic pesticides: Genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops have helped to create “superweeds,” pest plants that have mutated to survive herbicides. More than 61 million acres of American farmland are infested with Roundup-resistant weeds (Farm Industry News 2013). A 2012 survey conducted by the marketing research group Stratus Agri Marketing found that nearly half of American farmers reported finding superweeds in their fields (Stratus Agri Marketing 2013). To control these hardy plants, many farmers have resorted to older, more toxic herbicides like dicamba, and 2,4-D. Both dicamba and 2,4-D are known to cause reproductive problems and birth defects and pose increased risks of cancer.
  • Increased pesticide use: Herbicide resistance has led to more, not less, herbicide use. According to estimates published in 2012, herbicide-tolerant crops that stimulated superweed growth caused farmers to use 527 million pounds more herbicide between 1996-2011 than would have been the case if those farmers had planted only non-GE crops (Benbrook 2012).
  • Cross-contamination and gene transfer to non-target plant species: According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit group that records the global status of biotech crops, almost 70 million hectares of GE crops were planted in the U.S. in 2012 (ISAAA 2012), up from 64 million hectares in 2009 (ISAAA 2009). As GE crops proliferate, many organic farmers must struggle to prevent cross-contamination of their crops by GE seed or pollen spread by wind, insects, floods, and machinery. Unintended GE contamination has become a major issue for organic growers hoping to sell their crops in places that strictly regulate or ban GE foods. It has been estimated that potential lost income for farmers growing organic corn may total $90 million annually (Union of Concerned Scientists 2001).
  • Human health risks: Scientists have not determined whether GE food poses risks to human health. However, introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on the digestive tract, nutrient absorption, metabolism, and overall health. Consuming GE foods also increases our exposure to herbicide and pesticide residues, many of which are neurotoxic, carcinogenetic, associated with behavioral effects, birth defects, genetic mutations, and reproductive problems.
  • Extensive testing of GM foods has not been done to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers who have food allergies. 
  • Increased risk of allergenicity and autoimmune disorders: Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. The incidence and prevalence of gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and various autoimmune disorders has been increasing in both human and animal populations in the U.S. during the last 20 years. It is possible that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. 

Until Congress or state governments enact mandatory labeling of GE ingredients in food, how can American shoppers avoid food with GE ingredients?

Buy organic: National and state organic certification rules do not allow GE  foods to be labeled “organic.”  When you buy organic, you buy food free not only of synthetic pesticides but also GE ingredients:

USDA Organic Logo

Buy food certified as “Non-GMO* Project Verified: The non-profit organization Non-GMO Project operates a detailed, voluntary certification process so that food producers can test and verify that, to the best of their knowledge, they have avoided using GE ingredients in their products. The Non-GMO Project is the only organization offering independent verification for GMO products in the U.S. and Canada (Non-GMO Project 2014):

Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food” to find foods made without ingredients likely to be genetically engineered. Eating only organic and certified GE-free food is not an option for some people. EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food helps consumers find products made without ingredients that are likely to be genetically engineered and decide which products are most important to buy organic or certified GE-free.

[Source: “List of Countries That Banned Genetically Modified Food.” 02/09/15 (]

Contact your state and federal representatives and demand that all foods be clearly labeled if they contain or were developed with any GE ingredients.


*GMO: “genetically modified organism,” a term interchangeable with “genetically engineered” or “GE.”

*Genetically modified (GM) foods: Foods produced from crops that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, however, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy.


  1. Benbrook, C. (2009) Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.: the first thirteen years. (Source: 01/06/14.
  2. Benbrook, C. (2012) Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. – the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:24 
  3. Center for Food Safety (2013a) International Labeling Laws. (Source: ). 01/07/14.
  4. Center for Food Safety (2013b) About Genetically Engineered Foods. (Source: 01/07/14.
  5. Environmental Protection Agency (2013) Major Crops Grown in the United States. (Source: 12/03/13.
  6. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding Genetically Engineered Food. (Source: › Research). 02/19/14.
  7. Farm Industry News (2013) Glyphosate-resistant weed problem extends to more species, more farms. (Source: 12/08/13.
  8. Food and Drug Administration (2014). Completed Consultations on Bioengineered Foods. (Source: 01/09/14.
  9. Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association (2013) Hawaii Grown Papayas: The Rainbow Papaya Story. (Source: 11/25/13.
  10. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) (2009) Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2009 – The First Fourteen Years, 1996 to 2009. (Source: 01/07/14.
  11. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) (2012) Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012. (Source: 01/07/14.
  12. Iowa State University (2011) Corn Production: Common Corn Questions and Answers. (Source: 01/07/14.
  13. “List of Countries That Banned Genetically Modified Food.” 02/09/15 (
  14. Non-GMO Project (2014) The “Non-GMO Project Verified” Seal. (Source: ). 01/07/14.
  15. Stratus Agri Marketing (2013) Glyphosate Resistant Weeds – Intensifying. (Source: 01/07/14
  16. Union of Concerned Scientists (2001) Union of Concerned Scientists Comments to the Environmental Protection Agency on the renewal of BT-Crop Registration. Docket OPP-00678B. (Source: 01/06/14.
  17. Union of Concerned Scientists (2009) Genetic Engineering has Failed to Significantly Boost U.S. Crop Yields Despite Biotech Industry Claims. (Source: 01/07/14.
  18. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013a) National Statistics by Subject. (Source: 12/03/13.
  19. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013b) Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. (Source: 12/03/13.
  20. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013c) US sugar production. (Source: 11/25/13.
  21. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013d) Organic 101: Can GMOs be used in organic products. (Source: 12/08/13.
  22. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013e) Dow AgroSciences Petitions (09-233-01p, 09-349-01p, and 11-234-01p) for Determinations of Nonregulated Status for 2,4-D-Resistant Corn and Soybean Varieties. Draft Environmental Impact Statement—2013. (Source: 01/09/14.
  23. U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013ef) Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc.; Availability of Plant Pest Risk Assessment and Environmental Assessment for Determination of Nonregulated Status of Apples Genetically Engineered To Resist Browning. [Docket No. APHIS–2012–0025] Federal Register 78:251 (December 31, 2013) p 79658. (Source: 01/09/14.

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The Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide helps consumers to enjoy the health benefits of fruits and vegetables with less exposure to pesticides

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual rating of conventional foods with the most and least pesticide residues. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not sufficiently warned Americans about the risks of pesticide exposure and ways to reduce pesticides in their diets, EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce was designed to fill this void. It translates an extensive database of pesticide tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on food crops into a user-friendly tool that empowers Americans to reduce their exposures to pesticide. This year’s guide draws from 32,000 produce samples tested by USDA and FDA scientists who detected pesticides on 65%, or about two of every three, samples!

EWG’s analysis of government tests has found sharp differences in the number and concentrations of pesticides measured on various fruits and vegetables. Consumers can reduce their intake of such pesticides by avoiding Dirty Dozen crops or purchasing organically-produced fruits and vegetables instead.

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 marked dramatic progress in the federal government’s efforts to protect Americans from dangerous pesticides. This legislation, which EWG played a major role in pushing through Congress, required EPA to assess pesticides due to their particular dangers to children and ensure that pesticides posed a “reasonable certainty of no harm” to children or any other high-risk group. The law is credited with reducing risks posed by pesticide residues on food. It forced American agribusiness to shift away from some of the most hazardous pesticides. But worrisome chemicals are not completely out of the food supply. Residues of many are still detected on some foods.

The Consumer Right to Know provision of the 1996 law required that EPA inform the public about possible hazards to their health brought about by consuming pesticides with their food. It ordered EPA to publish and distribute in grocery stores plain-English brochures that discussed the risks and benefits of pesticides on food. The brochures were to offer recommendations, so shoppers could reduce their dietary exposures to pesticides. The EPA published a brochure in 1999, but failed to detail the actual risks of pesticide exposures and give consumers clear information about foods with the most pesticide residues to help them reduce their exposures. EPA stopped publishing it altogether in 2007. Today, EPA offers some information about pesticides and food on its website, but does not list foods likely to contain the highest amounts of pesticide residues nor those that pose the greatest dangers to human health. It’s general advice is basically, ‘Wash your fruits and vegetables.’ Most importantly, the EPA does not offer the “right to know” information Congress required on behalf of consumers in 1996: how to avoid pesticide exposures while still eating a healthy diet.

Since the EPA has not complied with the Congressional mandate in full for more than a decade, EWG publishes the annual guide to help people eat healthy and reduce their exposure to pesticides in produce. The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide helps consumers select conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables that tend to test low for pesticide residues. When consumers want foods whose conventional versions test high for pesticides, they can choose organic.

Health risks of pesticide exposure: According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the health risks of pesticide exposure through food, water, or air are not yet clear. While USDA says that pesticide residues do not pose a safety concern, EWG notes that they are associated with many health risks, including cancer, brain and behavioral changes, and hormone disruption.

Children have unique susceptibilities to pesticide residues’ potential toxicity: Parents’ concerns have been validated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2012 issued an important report that cited research linking pesticide exposures in early life and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” The organization advised its members to urge parents to consult “reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables,” such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

European regulators act more quickly than their American counterparts to restrict common produce pesticides:

  • For years, Europe has questioned the safety and ecological dangers of a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, chemicals suspected of disrupting human brain development and killing honeybees and other beneficial insects. Neonicotinoid pesticides were developed as substitutes for older and more neurotoxic insecticides, primarily organophosphates and carbamates, and have been widely used by American, European, and other growers over the past decade. USDA testing has found neonicotinoid residues on about 20% of all produce samples and as much as 60% of broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, spinach and summer squash. Scientific research has suggested that neonicotinoids could harm children’s brain development and might contribute to the collapse of populations of honeybees and other pollinators. In response to these developments, European officials tightened their guidelines for allowable daily exposures to two neonicotinoid pesticides (EFSA 2013). Last December they declared a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoids (European Commission 2013). Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA will soon require new cautionary language and instructions on the labels of neonicotinoid pesticides and are conducting a multi-year assessment of neonicotinoid toxicity, expected to conclude by 2018. Environmental advocates call EPA’s efforts slow and inadequate.
  • In June 2012, the European Commission banned diphenylamine (DPA) on fruit raised in the 28 European Union member states and imposed tight restrictions on imported fruit. DPA, a “growth regulator” or antioxidant, is applied after harvest to most apples conventionally grown in the U.S. and some U.S.-grown pears, to prevent fruit skin from discoloring during months of cold storage. As of March, 2014, apples and pears imported into the European Union can contain no more than 0.1 part per million of DPA (EC 2013). In the U.S., DPA, a “growth regulator” or antioxidant, is applied to most conventional apples and some pears after harvest
  • U.S. officials have not followed the Europeans in restricting either neonicotinoids or DPA. The EPA has not even studied the risks posed by DPA on apples since 1998.

EWG’s 2014 Dirty Dozen™: Includes apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes, foods containing many different pesticide residues and high concentrations of pesticides relative to other produce items:

  • Apples were #1 on the list again this year. The pesticide diphenylamine, which was banned in Europe in 2012, was present on 80% of apples most recently tested.
  • Imported snap peas, absent from last year’s list, were added to the list, ranking as the 11th “dirtiest” type of produce.
  • Hot peppers, in 12th place in 2013, along with kale and collard greens were placed on a “Dirty Dozen Plus” list  of foods that don’t meet the “Dirty Dozen’s” criteria but still contain minimal amounts of insecticide.
  • Every sample of imported nectarines and 99% of apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
  • The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other food.
  • A single grape sample contained 15 pesticides.
  • Single samples of celery, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.

EWG’s 2014 Clean Fifteen™: Ranks produce least likely to contain pesticide residues, such as avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes:

  • Cauliflower made an appearance on the list, avocado jumped from No. 2 to No. 1, and mushrooms were the only item to drop off the list this year.
  • Avocados were the cleanest: only 1% of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • 89% of pineapples, 82% of kiwi, 80% of papayas, 88% of mango and 61% of cantaloupe had no residues at all.
  • No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen™ tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
  • Detecting multiple pesticide residues is extremely rare on Clean Fifteen™ vegetables. Only 5.5% of Clean Fifteen™ samples had two or more pesticides.

Dirty Dozen PLUS™: For the 3rd year, the Dirty Dozen™ has a “Plus” category to highlight 2 foods that contain trace levels of highly hazardous pesticides. Leafy greens – kale and collard greens – and hot peppers do not meet traditional Dirty Dozen™ ranking criteria but were frequently contaminated with insecticides that are toxic to the human nervous system. People who eat these foods should buy organic instead.

Dirty Dozen 2014:

Sweet bell peppers
Nectarines (imported)
Cherry tomatoes
Snap peas (imported)

Dirty Dozen Plus™ 2014: Leafy greens (kale, collard greens) and hot peppers

Clean Fifteen 2014:

Sweet corn
Frozen sweet peas
Sweet potatoes

Genetically engineered (GE) crops: Most processed food contains one or more ingredients derived from GE crops. But GE food is not often found in the produce section of American supermarkets. A small percentage of zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn in grocery stores is GE. Most Hawaiian papaya is GE. Other GE foods are currently being tested and may eventually be approved by the USDA. Since U.S. law does not require labeling of GE produce, consumers who want to avoid GE crops should purchase organically-grown foods or items bearing the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. EWG recommends that consumers check EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food to help them identify foods likely to contain GE ingredients.

  1. AAP 2012. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health. e1406 -e1415. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579.
  2. EFSA. 2012. Conclusion on the peer review of the pesticide risk assessment of the active substance diphenylamine. European Food Safety Authority, EFSA Journal 10(1): 2486-2527.
  3. EFSA 2013. EFSA assesses potential link between two neonicotinoids and developmental neurotoxicity. European Food Safety Authority. (Source: and
  4. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (Source:
  5. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce: Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. (Source:
  6. EPA. 2013. EPA’s review of the European Food Safety Authority’s conclusions regarding studies involving the neonicotinoid pesticides. December 23, 2013. (Source:
  7. European Commission. 2006. Commission Directive 2006/125/EC of 5 December 2006 on processed cereal-based foods and baby foods for infants and young children. OJ L 339, 6.12.2006: 16 – 35.
  8. European Commission. 2013. Bees & Pesticides: Commission goes ahead with plan to better protect bees. (Source:
  9. USDA. 2012. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2010. U.S. Department of Agriculture, May 2012.
  10. USDA. 2014. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2012. U.S. Department of Agriculture, February 2014.

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A salon manicure often involves drying freshly painted nails under a lamp that emits ultraviolet (UV) rays while blowing air at one’s fingertips to dry the polish. Most of us have not been aware of any risk associated with using these devices. However, a new study indicates that nail salon dryers which use UV light to dry nail polish and harden a gel manicure emit varying levels of radiation that can lead to premature aging and damage of skin in as few as 8 visits to the manicurist.

The nail dryers emit primarily ultraviolet-A (UVA) light, a spectrum of light long linked to skin cancers and the same light used in tanning beds. Gel manicures have become popular because they create long-lasting, shiny nails by means of a chemical gel that is painted on the nail in layers and cured under UV light after every coating.

Case reports of 2 women who developed squamous cell skin cancers on their hands have suggested an association between cancer and the UV nail light devices. However, most doctors assume the risk is probably low.

In the study, researchers from Georgia Regents University in Augusta conducted a random sampling of 17 different UV nail lamps found in 16 nail salons to determine how much UV radiation is being emitted when clients dry their nails under the lights. High-tech meters were used to measure the UVA light exposure upon hands held in various positions under the drying lamps.

The study, published this week as a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Dermatology, found wide variation in the dose of UVA light emitted during 8 minutes of nail drying or hardening. The dose, measured in joules per centimeter squared, ranged from less than 1 to 8.

According to Dr. Lyndsay R. Shipp, the study’s lead author and a postgraduate resident in the Department of Dermatology at the university’s Medical College of Georgia, the amount of UV light exposure coming out of these devices varies greatly, ranging from “barely” to “significant.”

DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer is known to occur at around 60 joules per centimeter squared. None of the nail lamps came close to that number. However, the researchers estimated that for most of the lamps tested, 8 to 14 visits over 24 to 42 months would reach the threshold for DNA damage to the skin.

The study authors note that the “risk from multiple manicure visits remains untested,” but the findings suggests that “even with numerous exposures, the risk for carcinogenesis remains small.” Dr. Shipp said, “There is a theoretical risk, but it’s very low.” One’s health and immune status, prior exposure to other chemicals, age at time of exposure, and amount of time spent under the UV light can all influence a person’s risk of cancer.

As expected, lamps with higher-wattage bulbs emitted the highest levels of UV radiation, but it would not be easy for a salon client to check the wattage before using a machine. Dr. Shipp said she sometimes uses a nail lamp every couple of months and will continue to do so, noting that “you can get that amount of exposure when driving down the road in your car.”

Dr. Chris Adigun, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, warns clients to wear some form of UV protection when using salon drying lamps and notes that this study has “exposed an issue that needs to be addressed — that there is little to no regulation on the manufacturing of these nail lamps.” “As a result, the bulbs, wattage, and irradiance of these lamps varies dramatically from one manufacturer to the next, and individuals utilizing these lamps in salons have no way of knowing just how much UV exposure their skin is receiving upon each manicure.”

Even though the study found the overall risk of skin cancer from UV lamps to be low, “there are reports of nonmelanoma skin cancers on the hands after UV nail lamp exposure,” Dr. Adigun added. “What this article addresses is the lack of regulation of these lamps, leading to potentially varied malignancy risk from lamp to lamp and salon to salon.”

Clients who are concerned about the risk but want to continue getting gel manicures, which require UV light, have a few options. They can skip the lotion-and-massage portion of the manicure and instead coat their hands with sunscreen before having gel nails applied. Another option is to wear UV-protective gloves with the fingertips cut off so only the nails are exposed to the light.

Users of regular nail polish should try fans or air-drying in order to avoid the devices.

Remember, the less often you have a manicure or pedicure the better. Nail polish, polish remover, and nail gels often contain pthalates and endocrine disruptors.

  1. Chris Adigun, M.D., Assistant Professor, Dermatology, Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City; JAMA Dermatology, April 30, 2014, online.
  2. “Nail Salon’ Drying Lamps Carry Small Cancer Risk.” HealthDay News. 04/30/14.
  3. Pope, Tara Parker-Pope. “UV Light of Nail Dryers Can Imperil Skin, Study Finds.”  The New York Times. page: A-14. 05/01/14.
  4. Pope, Tara Parker-Pope. “Nail Salon Lamps May Increase Skin Cancer Risk.” The New York Times: Well-Cancer. 04/30/14.

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Preparation time: 30 minutes
Total cook time: 45 minutes
Servings: about 24 servings
  • 4-6 onions, thinly sliced or diced
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4-6 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
  • 4-6 large carrots, chopped, or 2 small bags USDA organic baby carrots
  • 3-4 brightly colored bell peppers, diced
  • 3 or 4 32-ounce containers (12-16 cups) of low sodium, non-fat beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
  • 1 head of cabbage, cored, outer leaves removed, chopped or shredded
  • 3 32-ounce jars, or 3 28-ounce cans, of diced tomatoes
  • 6-12 tablespoons tomato paste (I use an entire 7-ounce jar, equivalent to 12 tablespoons, since I love tomatoes!)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Fresh, chopped basil, dill, oregano, parsley (or 1 tablespoon of each if dried)
  • Fresh chopped parsley to add as a garnish before serving
  1. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  2. Add onions and garlic. Cook until onions begin to appear transparent, about 5-8 minutes.
  3. Add celery, carrots, and bell peppers.
  4. Saute until slightly tender.
  5. Pour in broth.
  6. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, and cabbage.
  7. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat.
  8. Stir in black pepper, basil, oregano, and parsley.
  9. Cook until cabbage and vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes, stirring often.
  10. Taste broth and adjust seasoning if needed.
  11. Serve and enjoy!
A variety of fresh or frozen vegetables (chopped dill, scallions, broccoli, carrots, corn, cauliflower, green beans, peas) may be added during cooking.
For richer flavor, ladle soup over a serving of cooked brown rice or quinoa, or sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on top right before serving.
The soup will keep well in the refrigerator for about 5-7 days. Extra soup may be frozen.

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