Aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth, found in the soil, water and air. It is used in food (as additives), drugs (e.g., antacids), consumer products (e.g., cooking utensils and aluminum foil) and in the treatment of drinking water (e.g., coagulants).
Aluminum occurs naturally in many foods, but usually only in low concentrations. Certain foods, such as dairy products, grains and grain products, desserts and beverages, may contain levels of aluminum that are higher than naturally-occurring background levels due to the use of aluminum compounds as food additives. In general, approximately 95% of the normal daily intake of aluminum in adults comes from food.
Some surface water treatment plants use aluminum in the form of alum (aluminum sulphate) to help remove harmful waterborne microorganisms and other particles. Since the alum added in the treatment process is mostly removed at a later stage, the average aluminum content in treated water is only slightly higher than in untreated water. The intake of aluminum in drinking water generally amounts to less than 5% of the total daily intake for an adult. This may vary widely depending on the general quality of the source water (including the natural presence of aluminum in the water), and the treatment processes used.
While it is true that most of our daily intake of aluminum comes from food, only a very small percentage – usually less than 1% – is actually absorbed by the body. Absorption depends on a variety of factors, including the type of aluminum compound, the food eaten, and the age and health of the person consuming the food.
Aluminum in drinking water is better absorbed by the body (i.e., is more “bioavailable”) than aluminum in food, even though it is responsible for only a small fraction of the total daily intake. This means that drinking water could be a more significant source of aluminum than food.
Historically, aluminum has been considered relatively non-toxic; however in recent years, the public and the media have become concerned about possible adverse effects of aluminum on human health, including its role in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Research has revealed a link between aluminum intake and neurological dementia in kidney dialysis patients (dialysis encephalopathy). Questions have been raised about the potential risks to infants who drink baby formula containing aluminum. The intake of large amounts of aluminum can also cause anemia, osteomalacia (brittle or soft bones), glucose intolerance, and cardiac arrest in humans.
Studies have shown that the amount of aluminum that leaches from aluminum cookware and foil into food is negligible. However, given the fact that aluminum is so pervasive in the environment that it is unavoidable, it might make sense to minimize intake as much as possible.
Natural Cures suggests using stainless steel or cast iron cookware. Look for canned natural food products that are lined with substances other than aluminum, especially for acidic foods which can interact with metals, such as tomatoes. As for cooking with foil, some cooks line the foil with parchment paper so that there is no food-to-foil contact. Foods to be stored can be wrapped in plastic or waxed paper before they are put in foil.
To use or not to use — that is the question.