Natural Toxins and Chemopreventives in Plants

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Contribution to Book

Journal/Book Title/Conference

Food Toxicology


William Helferich and Carl K. Winter


CRC Press, Inc.

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Our food contains, in addition to the many well-known major (protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fiber) and minor (vitamins, minerals, and nonessential compounds) nutrients, thousands of naturally present toxic plant compounds. Some are known or strongly suspected to cause cancer in laboratory animals and, thus, may be potentially carcinogenic in people. Many of these compounds are commonly termed "nature's pesticides" because they are often toxic to predators, such as insects and animals, thereby conferring a competitive advantage to the plant that produces them. Other natural toxins in plants have no known role. Although these chemicals are in every meal we eat, they have received little attention compared to that given to minute residues of synthetic chemicals such as PCBs and pesticides. Our food contains significantly greater amounts of natural plant toxins and carcinogens than the synthetic kind, and our bodies aren't able to distinguish between the two. Still, while popular notion remains that "natural is good," it is clear that natural toxins pose a far greater health risk than that posed by synthetic chemicals in our foods.


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