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Published: February 9, 2022
Sunflower seed butter (like peanut butter, but made from sunflower seeds, instead of peanuts)! So what’s the problem?
Sunflowers are beautiful, and — in general — nuts and seeds are a great food choice… However, Sunflowers — like a few other plants — are especially good at sucking Lead up from the soil as they grow! This is something to consider when you are making a food choice for your family — and is especially important when choosing a food that your growing children might consume frequently, perhaps even daily.
Given these considerations (that many of our children eat nut and seed butters quite frequently, in large quantities, and that sunflower seeds can often test positive for high levels of Lead), we (the Rubin Family, in Portland!) have always limited how often — and how much — sunflower seeds (or sunflower seed butter) our children consume.
- We never buy sunflower seed butter or sunflower oil for use in our home.
- Instead, we choose (organic, packaged in glass) peanut butter, cashew butter, almond butter, walnut butter, or pumpkin seed butter.
- I do sometimes (rarely) buy organic sunflower seeds. Normally, as a camping or traveling snack… but we really do avoid them as much as possible whenever we have a choice of a reasonable alternative.
- With all the traveling we do for my work I will admit that sometimes the only relatively “healthy” sugar-free, artificial-additives-free snack in a convenience store IS sunflower seeds (not even organically-grown) — so there are definitely those moments of circumstances-imposed compromise, too (I’m only human; I don’t beat myself up about an occasional compromise like this when there is really no choice).
More specific info on why our family (with Lead-poisoned children in the mix) avoids sunflower/ safflower seed products (including sunflower oil) … Hint: it’s because of science!
Early on in my Lead-poisoning prevention advocacy and awareness journey I learned about the work of Dr. Howard Mielke — the Lead-in-soils-expert who is a science professor at Tulane. Actually, in 2008 he was interviewed for a news story — which I was also interviewed for. In that news piece (which you can watch in full, below) the concept of phytoremediation is briefly discussed — using certain plants, such as sunflowers, selected for their ability to efficiently suck up significant amounts of a toxic contaminant (Lead, in this case) from the soil in which they are grown! (It’s a practice that is unfortunately, fundamentally flawed, which I address below.)
Here’s an image from (and link to) the Wikipedia page on Phytoremediation:
Here’s the interview from April of 2008 (one of my first television interviews as an activist — I was 6 months pregnant with Charlie in this video). Please watch the whole thing to hear the part about the sunflowers!
How does this work? Why do sunflowers suck up Lead from the soil? Why is this a problem?
Lead has the ability to bio-mimic Calcium in all biological structures — animals (including humans) and plants, included. What this means is that a biological structure which uses Calcium as an essential building block towards growth (be that the brain of a young child or the seeds of a sunflower) will find any accessible Lead in the environment and utilize and store that instead of Calcium (incorporating it just as if it were Calcium). The organism will store the Lead in any high calcium structures of the organism. In the case of sunflowers, this is the seed — the part we eat (and from which we extract oil).
Not only are sunflowers good at Phytoremediation (removing toxics from soil), but they are also “Hyperaccumulators.”
Because sunflowers are hyperaccumulators and therefore particularly efficient not just in absorbing Lead but in absorbing high concentrations of Lead (as well as other toxic substances — including radioactive material) from soil, they have been used in many phytoremediation experiments — including Chernobyl! (Spinach is another high-calcium plant that might be used for phytoremediation.) Said another way, sunflowers have been shown to do a better job of sucking up Lead from soils than many other crops, and thus we would want — and hope — that the soil of farms where sunflowers are to be grown for food would be confirmed to be Lead-free. Yet this is unfortunately not always the case.
- Soil on sunflower farms in the United States is more likely to be Lead-free than, for example, soil on many farms outside of the United States.
- Unfortunately many countries have either more lax regulatory standards than the U.S., or (in some cases) a total absence of regulatory standards for toxicants (in general) that might impact farming/ food production/ food quality, and safety.
- More specifically as it relates to Lead: Many countries lack any regulatory standards related to the use of Lead in pesticides (causing either legacy contamination* of fields or current contamination), Lead in gasoline (still often used in farm equipment) and Lead paint on farm equipment (also ubiquitous on farms still, even on new tractors and harvesting machines) — all of which can contaminate the soil being farmed.
*Lead in pesticides can be a legacy (historical) problem in the United States (mostly a concern on old fruit orchards that used to use heavily-Leaded pesticides, and may still have active older fruit-bearing trees) but even more so it is unfortunately a concern consumers have to worry about (or at least be aware of) with modern farming when considering purchasing any food product grown outside of the U.S. — especially in South American and Central American countries (including Mexico), as well as China (which has notoriously-contaminated soil in many areas where crops are grown). Essentially, each area of the world where a significant percentage of the world’s sunflower seeds are grown.
Interesting fact: Most sunflowers are from Ukraine and Russia
In doing research for this piece (see charts below) I learned that Ukraine and Russia are the top producers of sunflower seeds in the world (I thought that was really interesting!). I have NO IDEA what Ukraine’s policy is on toxics in soil used for farming (or if they export their sunflower products to the United States), but I will do some more research on that. August 13, 2022 update: Since I wrote this piece (just before the war broke out!) I did a deeper dive into European food standards for Lead and Cadmium toxicity (you can read that here). The next question that would need to be answered (and I have not found this answer yet — so please let me know if you have this information) is whether or not Russia and Ukraine follow European standards (which they may) or if they have their own agricultural standards when it comes to toxicant regulations. I have to do a deeper dive starting here (link) to find out if the requirements for Ukraine’s bid to join the EU includes requirements to adhere to the current food safety standards/ agricultural standards — and (if so) how long they have until they are required to be in full compliance once they join the EU.
This is why we significantly limit our family’s consumption of sunflower seed products.
Here’s one chart I found that may be of interest
(the image below is linked to the source article).
Here’s another graph (slightly different — also linked to the source article).
Aside from sunflower seed butter, what’s the problem with phytoremediation in general?
- The main problem with phytoremediation is that the plants that have been chosen for experiments related to this work don’t grow with a full ground cover — and instead, are often grown with patches of bare/ exposed soil around the roots.
- Because of the type of root structure for these plants, if you plant them with a density great enough to give full cover of a contaminated area, there will still be plant-free areas of bare soil between each plant.
- A separate problem is that, if being used for the process of phytoremediation, the plants would then need to be disposed of as toxic waste (which is not easy to do in most communities).
- You would also want to handle disposal BEFORE any birds (or other native wildlife) started eating the plants — because if the plants are efficient at phytoremediation, animals could be poisoned by eating the Lead-rich seeds.
- Separately from those considerations (even if they were each handled in some creative way), the number of years that it would take to do effective phytoremediation on a typical Lead-contaminated urban lot would likely take at minimum many decades of persistent maintenance (even possibly a century, or longer)!
What you can do about this… (back to sunflower seed products!)
#1) Eat fewer sunflower products & diversify your diet
While I don’t think you should be concerned about potential Lead exposure if your kid has a handful of sunflower seeds at a ball game (or similar) every now and again (you can read more about the concerns for overreacting to a particular nuance of this conversation here), perhaps you can try out eating/ buying fewer sunflower products and instead replace them with a range of alternatives (diversify your kiddos diet a bit more, in the seeds and oils area)!
Good alternatives to sunflower seed butter might include:
- Organic Almond Butter
- Organic Pumpkin Seed Butter (a favorite of our kiddos)
- Organic Peanut Butter (which has other issues for some, I realize)
- Organic Hazelnut Butter (yum!)
- Organic Cashew Butter
- Organic Walnut Butter (walnuts are an excellent source of Omega 3s that are hard to get through food sources so they are a great thing to add to your diet)
Note: whenever buying a nut butter product ALWAYS please only buy these products in GLASS containers (never plastic) and always buy organic whenever your budget and circumstances permit. You can read more about that here.
For oils we use a variety of other options:
#2) Ask for a COA
Another course of action (if your kiddo is dependent on sunflower seed butter) might be to ask the manufacturer of your favorite sunflower seed butter brand for a COA (certificate of analysis) showing any Lead testing they have done on their product.
- Ideally, if a child eats sunflower seed products on a regular basis, you want those products to test negative for Lead — with a low threshold of detection of 15 parts per billion (or lower), if possible.
- As we have seen with the salt conversation (link here), it is unlikely, however, that you will find a food producer that tests to a threshold that low (15 ppb) — which would be a reasonable level that might be considered to be protective of children’s health, especially for a product eaten daily — so alternately, a low threshold of detection of 50 parts per billion (and specifically a reading of “less than 50 ppb” on a COA) might be the best you can find in the food industry and would likely be sufficient (in the absence of demanding more precise testing).
- If enough customers demand Lead testing down to a more reasonable/ health-protective threshold of detection (“15 ppb or lower” and in perfect world, “1 ppb or lower”*), it’s possible (and even likely) that a popular organic food company might comply with that request – as they stand to benefit from proving they have very low (or non-detect) levels of Lead in their product. The actual cost of periodic batch testing of their products — to them as a company — is not that expensive. and is something that any reasonably sized company could implement on a regular basis.
To reiterate: In all things related to diet, diversity is a best “first principle.” In the absence of sufficient independent testing, try to diversify your child’s diet — especially when it comes to any processed or package foods — diversifying both in terms of types of products they eat, and in the brands of foods (so if one brand ends up being contaminated, it is not a primary food source).
*1 ppb is the current threshold above which the American Academy of Pediatrics considers water unsafe for ingestion by school children. The EPA regulatory limit for Lead in water (which is not a standard that is protective of human health) is 15 ppb Lead. At levels of 15 ppb Lead and higher water is considered unsafe for human consumption. Candy and dried fruit are considered unsafe for consumption by children at levels fo 50 to 100 ppb and above. The permissible level is higher for candy and dried fruit as there is an assumption that candy and dried fruit are consumed less frequently and so a greater amount of Lead is allowed. Given nut and seed butters are normally consumed at quantities and with a frequency much greater than one might expect with candy and dried fruit a reasonable standard for nut butters should be closer to the lower end of the range (with the strictest standard currently being the AAP standard of “less than 1 ppb” Lead for water in schools).
Thank you for reading and sharing about this work. As always, please let me know if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer them personally as soon as I have a moment.
Owner — Lead Safe Mama, LLC
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Tamara Rubin is a multiple-federal-award-winning independent advocate for childhood Lead poisoning prevention and consumer goods safety, and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (two of her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF technology (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times to confirm the test results for each component tested. Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).