The internet has gone crazy recently over the news that kale may contain high amounts of thallium, a heavy metal. This has caused a lot of distress, and more than its fair share of comments from people frustrated and wondering if their healthy diet – which included kale – was ruining their health instead of improving it.
Let’s go over what you need to know about kale and thallium, and then let’s talk about what this situation should really teach us.
Where this Story Started
Mother Jones published an article titled, Sorry, Foodies: We’re about to Ruin Kale. In it, they discussed the clinical experience of a Californian alternative researcher and molecular biologist who discovered that some of his patients dealing with issues such as hair and skin issues, neurological issues, fatigue and brain fog, had elevated levels of thallium. This was even more puzzling as the people with these symptoms were very health conscience and ate a great diet, including lots of dark greens and cruciferous vegetables.
He then found research noting that plants in the cruciferous family, including kale, cabbage, radishes, turnips and watercress, were effective in pulling out the heavy metal from soil.
He felt it wasn’t hard to connect the dots, and when some of his patients improved and their thallium levels dropped once cutting cruciferous vegetables out of their diet, it seemed to confirm the connection.
What we don’t know
Obviously, that thallium levels appear to become elevated for his patients when eating cruciferous vegetables is distressing news. But we also need to keep in mind what we don’t know. It’s possible that this is an isolated incidence geographically, or that there were other causes to blame in the above situation, or that his conclusion was flawed.
Why Pollution is to Blame, not Kale
Plus, I think that the kale haters showing up in droves over this story are missing the point. Kale is not the problem. But pollution is. I read another study talking about how pollution in seafood is distressing high. Considering that seafood and the cruciferous vegetables contain a lot of research behind them demonstrating their ability to improve health, this is depressing news.
But again, the problem is not that kale and seafood are bad for you, the problem is that our human-created pollution issues could be literally poisoning some of the most valuable and healthy foods we have.
And yes, that is distressing.
While trace of amounts of thallium are in the earth’s crust, elevated levels come from pollution, Mother Jones also reported. Cement plants, oil drilling, smelting, and ash from coal burning are all problematic. A local to me doctor also mentioned fracking as a source of thallium pollution.
So, if you are going to be upset at something, don’t blame kale. It’s still a wonderful source of many minerals and vitamins (and delicious to boot), but do get upset about the pollution that may be causing our most valuable, health-producing foods to become poisonous. That’s something worth being angry about.
His Conclusions May Be Flawed
Vox published a damning rebuttal to this story, criticizing the lack of science behind his conclusions. I personally never throw out clinical observations, but we should recognize their limitations, and his lab hopping is questionable. As reported in the Vox article, it appears that yes, kale does have the ability to accumulate thallium. But, to cause a problem for humans you’d have to plant it in heavily poisoned soils, and they’d have to accumulate it in their leaves (which doesn’t always happen). Thankfully, it sounds like researchers don’t believe that most soil contains high amounts of thallium. Generally, it would be nearly impossible to poison yourself with kale (or cabbage). But yes, not eating kale grown in soil with large amounts of thallium would be advised.
Is it possible that his 20 patients were eating kale from heavily poisoned soil? Perhaps, but researchers don’t believe that this should be an issue for the vast majority of kale. And if you are worried about thallium, kale is hardly the only vegetable that is an issue. A lot of vegetables pull it from the ground. Not eating vegetables seems like a poor route to good health.
Yes, I’m Still Eating Kale
If you think that the agriculture areas you are getting food from contain a lot of heavy metals from pollution, then you have cause for concern for a variety of reasons. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that we should be greatly concerned about this issue. In fact, with so many studies demonstrating health benefits to kale and cruciferous vegetables, science seems to point us towards eating plenty of it.
Really, the drama about this issue simply reminded me of how little kale I’ve eaten lately, and why I should remedy that, and also why it’s important that we don’t allow our country to become heavily polluted.