Is it safe to eat? Enjoy eating and minimize food risks

Is it safe to eat? Enjoy eating and minimize food risks 

Ian Shaw 
Heidelberg, Germany: Springer | 2005 | 251pp | ?19.50 (HB) | ISBN 3540212868 
Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray

The good news is that, generally speaking, there is little cause for concern over deleterious effects arising from the rich and varied cocktail of substances we consume every time we eat a meal.

The reason we can be confident about this is that evolution has endowed us with an abundance of enzymes that equip us to break down and render harmless not only the foods we consume but also most of the naturally occurring toxins our food may contain. Our enzymes also enable us to cope with a wide range of xenobiotic chemicals, such as those found in pesticide residues or pharmaceutical medications.  

Having said this, however, we cannot simply throw all caution to the wind. There will always be individuals who react badly to foods that the rest of us thrive on and, from time to time, our enzyme systems will be confronted with toxins that they are not able to deal with effectively. 

Sources of toxicity in foodstuffs include bacteria, viruses and a host of phytochemicals produced by plants to protect them from the ravages of invading organisms. This may mean that in some instances organic food - food grown without resort to pesticides - is more toxic in terms of its phytochemical load than conventional food. 

The bad news is that we need to be continually vigilant about what we eat and we can never take it for granted that all food is good for us. Ian Shaw’s book draws to our attention some of the horrors lurking in seemingly harmless food. The glycoalkaloids present, for instance, in cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes are quite toxic, 2.5g of a -solanine being sufficient to kill a human. Some mushrooms are much worse; the death cap mushroom contains so much of the liver toxin phalloidin that only two mouthfuls are fatal.  

Shaw addresses many other food-related issues, including the role of prions in BSE-infected meat, xenoestrogens and declining sperm counts, food-borne bacteria and viruses, and the use of genetically modified food.  

Although his coverage is as a rule highly instructive, I can’t support his overall conclusion boldly proclaimed on the final page: ’It is safe to eat - Enjoy!’ This simplistic slogan does not follow from Shaw’s discourse. A more appropriate ending might be: ’Caveat emptor’ (Let the buyer beware).