DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am concerned about using aluminum cookware and foil, as they present a danger of aluminum leaching into my food and causing health problems like Alzheimer's or autism. -- H.G., Chicago
DEAR H.G.: Are we in some danger zone where we must avoid using aluminum cookware and even aluminum foil? First things first: Any suggestion that aluminum exposure through our food can cause serious health issues like Alzheimer's, autism, dementia or cancer is not based on known facts.
Let's address this oft-aired concern with a bit of rigor, covering the following: 1. the amount of aluminum naturally present in foods; 2. how efficiently the aluminum we ingest is absorbed (its bioavailability); 3. the established safety tolerance for aluminum, and 4. what would be the weekly intake of aluminum if all foods were cooked in aluminum cookware, stored in aluminum containers and wrapped using aluminum foil. How would that level of exposure compare with the established safety tolerance limits?
Let's address those points in order:
1. Aluminum is the third-most abundant of all elements in the Earth's crust and is naturally present in foods. You cannot avoid exposure, whether your food is organic or conventionally grown. The daily intake of naturally present aluminum is about 3 milligrams per day, and processed foods and medications containing aluminum additives can add to that total. Another concern, of course, would be for any exposures at work or where one lives, but that is a separate issue.
2. The aluminum in our food has minimal bioavailability; less than one-tenth of 1% (0.01%) of ingested aluminum gets absorbed, most passing in the feces. Any absorbed will get handled by the kidneys, so those with impaired kidney function will be at greater risk.
3. Safe levels of aluminum intake for most individuals, referred to as the upper safety tolerances, have been established by various agencies and vary by age, sex and health status. The Environmental Protection Agency has its reference dose set at 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight per day. The joint U.N./World Health Organization expert committee came up with similar findings. This level equates to a safety tolerance of about 3.2 milligrams of aluminum for every pound of body weight per week. For a 150-pound individual, the safety tolerance would be 480 mg of aluminum per week.
4. The classic study published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants (Jan./Feb. 1995) reported that if you were to take an entire week's food supply, store it in aluminum containers, prepare it in aluminum cookware and wrap it in foil, the total aluminum intake from these exposures would be approximately 42 milligrams of additional aluminum per week. Even after adding the aluminum naturally present in the food, you would still be at about one-tenth of the tolerable limit.
These numbers tell the story that the levels of aluminum in the food -- and that which would be added if one were to use aluminum cookware, containers and foil -- are well below the level at which any harm would be anticipated.
Finally, never lose sight of the message that an active lifestyle complemented by a whole-food, plant-based (not necessarily vegan) diet facilitates our overall health in so many ways -- one of which is to keep systems involved with disposing of unwanteds like aluminum on their game.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.