Here’s something that annoys me—“journalists” writing clickbait stories. I see it all the time… a study gets published—often not even peer reviewed—but because the research paper in question seems controversial enough, the author will write their own article on the subject. I like to think that sometimes they have good intentions and simply didn’t do their due diligence and just read the abstract, but regardless; it’s a shame. Most people hear about new scientific discoveries not by directly reading the research papers, but instead by reading articles. The problem is if the particular study in question is a bad one, or if it isn’t even a study at all but some anecdotal observation, there’s a lot open to interpretation. At worst, bad science is at risk of being publicized.
Which is why I want to give my two cents on an article that was recently published in the online magazine, Craftsmanship, entitled: “The Vegetable Detective.” In which a molecular biologist named Ernie Hubbard discovers that kale might be a “hyperaccumulator” of heavy metals, such as nickel, lead, cadmium, cesium, aluminum, arsenic, and the focal metal of the article: thallium. Scary stuff right? So much so that there have already been a few articles talking about the potential harm of our beloved kale.
In the Craftsmanship story, Hubbard discovered the kale/heavy metal connect from his super “health conscious” clients who tested positive for very high heavy metal levels in their blood. Doing some impressive detective work, Hubbard was able to connect the dots and pinpoint kale as the vector from which his clients were having some nasty side effects from the reported heavy metal toxicity. Because what seems to be the number 1 health food? That’s right. Kale. And through some experimentation, Hubbard was startled to find that, indeed, kale has high levels of heavy metals and may be the culprit to his clients’ toxic exposure.
So am I going to stop eating this alleged nefarious vegetable? Should we lobby the government to ban kale?! Nope. And here’s why. Even if kale is able to take up a scary amount of heavy metals, it has an amazing way to bind up those heavy metals so even when we eat them, we do not absorb them. This is what the insoluble fiber does in a plant. It’s really quite an amazing safeguard.
You might be wondering now how Mr. Hubbard was able to find the high levels of heavy metals in his patients. I would guess that most of his “health conscious” patients who tested so high for these heavy metals were not victims because they were eating kale. No, they were victims because they were juicing. Juicing vegetables was not talked about in the Craftsmanship article, but based on my previous explanation that toxins are bound up in the insoluble fiber in food, if you happen to juice your greens everyday and thereby remove the insoluble fiber, it would make perfect sense that you’d get a toxic dose of heavy metals.
So here’s my take: Mr. Hubbard is probably onto something. Kale and other cruciferous vegetables are indeed likely “hyperaccumulators,” but they have defense mechanisms to protect against that, like the insoluble fiber. In addition, cruciferous vegetables are a great source of sulfur, which can assist the liver with the natural detoxification process. It seems like mother nature almost knew how to protect us from these toxins!
Summarizing, to ensure you are minimizing heavy metal exposure from these veggies, don’t decrease your consumption, just make sure you are not juicing. I would go out on a limb here and say this is probably true of juicing in general. When you remove the fiber not only are you setting yourself up for more radical blood glucose fluctuations, but you are now opening yourself up to getting an unsafe toxic burden from the heavy metals that may be accumulated in the plant. I do think that green smoothies—not juice, but smoothies—are still ok, as long as you make sure the texture of your green concoction is still relatively thick and fibrous. If you approach it that way, I don’t see any difference than if you chewed your veggies with your own mouth; in this situation, your blender is just doing some of the work for you. Or how about this—just eat the vegetable in its whole form. That’s even simpler. And finally, avoid non-organic versions. As you probably know, the non-organic versions can have some slightly higher levels of other toxins added in from the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
And remember to keep your liver happy so it can maintain and detox as it was designed to do by drinking plenty of water, and eating a variety of colorful, high-quality vegetables to give you the necessary phytochemicals to keep oxidants at bay. Another useful practice that I do personally is use near-infrared (NIR) sauna lights as a detox modality, which will relax your body and assist in detoxing through sweating (1).
Finally, I just want to say that I respect Todd Oppenheimer, the author of the Craftsmanship story, for writing such a stellar article. He even went as far as to say that he will post updates as the story develops further. My annoyance that I expressed at the beginning of the article is mostly aimed at the other publications that used Oppenheimer’s article as a springboard to say that kale is toxic and we should all be scared out of our minds, missing out on a potentially great nutrient source. I hope after reading my short rebuttal to this hype that you can rest easy and enjoy your kale… just don’t go juicing it! Live kale and prosper.