Vegetarian diet: the health dangers of certain pollutants linked to this diet

People with a vegetarian diet are less exposed to persistent organic pollutants, but more to phytoestrogens, mycotoxins and certain trace elements than the rest of the population.

In the NutriNet Santé study, 1,766 subjects declared that they did not consume meat. According to their habits, individuals were categorized as having an ovo-lacto-vegetarian (55%), pesco-ovo-lacto-vegetarian (34%) and vegan (11%) diet. Exposure to several contaminants was estimated using data from the second Total Diet Study (TDS2).

Fewer POPs in vegetarians

Vegetarians are found to be less exposed to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins/furans (PCDD-F). The rates vary from 1 to 10 between vegans and pesco-vegetarians since fish, crustaceans and molluscs are the main contributors to their exposures.

However, all the results are lower than those of the general population, without exceeding the indicative health values.

More phytoestrogens, mycotoxins and ETM in vegetarians

Exposure to phytoestrogens in the vegetarian population is found to be 10 to 300 times higher than in the rest of the population. The main contributors of phytoestrogens are “foods for special diets”, consumed by 50% of vegetarians (compared to 12% in the general population) and in quantities 6 times higher. Hence, according to the authors, a health risk that cannot be excluded.

The study further shows that vegetarians are 1.2 to 2.5 times more exposed to T2/HT2 mycotoxins than the rest of the population. This is explained by consumption of the “rice and wheat” group twice as high as the general population.

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In addition, vegetarians more often exceeded (from 2.5 to 10 times more) the recommended values ​​for certain Trace Metal Elements (TME) such as cadmium, aluminum or nickel. The main sources are for:

– Cadmium: vegetables and bread products. Between 1.25% and 1.47% of vegetarians exceed the threshold for nephrotoxic effects.

– Aluminium: hot drinks and vegetables. The exposure is 1.5 times higher than that observed in the general population, but without risk to health.

– Nickel: dried fruits, nuts, cereals and fruits. Exposures are between 1.2 and 1.6 times higher than in the general population. 60% of vegetarians have nickel exposure exceeding EFSA recommendations, resulting in a health risk that cannot be ruled out.


Fleury S. Exposure to contaminants and nutritional intakes in a French vegetarian population. Food Chem Toxicol. pii: S0278-6915(17)30430-1études-de-lalimentation-totale-eat


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