Environment & Science
10:45 am
Thu July 3, 2014

What should we do about the arsenic in our food? Experts say vary your diet, research ongoing

All this week, we’ve been talking about the potential for elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater in Michigan.

The upshot of our reports:

  1. Arsenic levels in Michigan’s groundwater can be high.
  2. Arsenic is bad for you.
  3. Scientists are finding health effects at lower exposure levels.
  4. If you’re on a well, test it for arsenic.
  5. If the levels are high, you should consider doing something about it.

This one chart published by the Center for Public Integrity shows you why (the blue bar is arsenic):

Chart showing lifetime cancer risks for arsenic and other chemicals from the Center for Public Integrity.
Credit Center for Public Integrity

So what are the potential sources of arsenic in the foods we eat?

The research is still ongoing, but several foods have been identified that contain arsenic.

Apple juice and grape juice have been tagged as potential dietary sources of arsenic. And on the more adult side of the beverage spectrum, so have wine and beer.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Brussels sprouts, some fish, and leafy lettuce have been tagged as well.

So are we supposed to do?

A food and agriculture blogger for Mother Jones wrote:

“I have a friend who claims to have stopped reading me because I ruin all of her favorite foods.”

The research into how these foods contribute to our overall arsenic exposure is still early. And your exposure level to arsenic will depend a lot on how much of these foods you’re consuming.

Here’s how one expert put it on WebMD:

“All plants pick up arsenic,” John M. Duxbury, PhD, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says in an email. “Concentrations in leaves of plants are much higher than in grains of plants. Thus, leafy vegetables can contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, especially when they are grown on arsenic-contaminated soils."

But because we eat a much lower volume of leafy greens compared to other kinds of foods, “arsenic intake from this source is also low,” Duxbury says.

Rice plants readily take up arsenic from the water the plants are grown in.
Credit FDA

One staple that is consumed in larger volumes, however, is rice.

In the last several years, a lot has been made about the amount of arsenic in rice.

Dr. Michael Crupain directs the food safety testing at Consumer Reports.

“We know from a lot of scientific research that has been done over many years that rice is one of the largest contributors of arsenic in our diets. And so rice, or anything with rice in it, are foods that we know will have higher levels of arsenic than foods without.”

In 2012, Consumer Reports did tests on 223 samples of various rice products, and released a report that found the following:

Organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice—new tests by Consumer Reports have found that those and other types of rice products on grocery shelves contain arsenic, many at worrisome levels.

In terms of plain rice, the study found that brown rice typically contained more arsenic that white rice:

Though brown rice has nutritional advantages over white rice, it is not surprising that it might have higher levels of arsenic, which concentrates in the outer layers of a grain. The process of polishing rice to produce white rice removes those surface layers, slightly reducing the total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in the grain.

From 2012 to 2013, the FDA also tested rice.

They tested more samples - around 1,300 samples of rice and rice products. The agency also found arsenic in its samples of things like rice drinks, grain-based bars, cereals, snacks, as well plain rice.

The FDA concluded that there are no short-term risks, but more study was needed to determine the longer term risks.

From its report:

The levels FDA found in its testing are too low to cause immediate or short-term adverse health effects. FDA’s work going forward will center on long-term risk and ways to manage it with a focus on long-term exposure.

"We know that rice likes to take up arsenic, so it doesn't make sense to grow rice in places where there is a lot of arsenic in the soil."

Why rice?

Rice takes up arsenic more easily because it’s grown in water. The element easily dissolves in water and can be taken up by the plant.

Crupain of Consumer Reports says there are things the industry can do.

“We know that rice likes to take up arsenic, so it doesn’t make sense to grow rice in places where there is a lot of arsenic in the soil,” he said. “And we also know that there are certain varieties of rice that may take up less arsenic. We can look towards that. There’s different conditions in which rice is grown. We know that flooding fields is something that's done in rice production and that it tends to lead to increased arsenic uptake in rice.”

Crupain says cutting back on flooding fields is particularly difficult for the organic rice industry. He says it relies on flooding fields for weed control.

In addition to those practices, many experts agree that arsenic should stop being used as a pesticide since it persists in the environment.

David Heath with the Center for Public Integrity showed how politics prevented the EPA from phasing out a weed killer that contains arsenic. It's called MSMA and you can buy it on Amazon here. And Crupain said there is still one compound that is fed to chickens that contains arsenic.

What this means for you and your family

Consumer Reports concluded that people should limit the amount of these rice products they eat. You can find their recommendations here.

And in its online Q and A, the FDA says the following:

Rice is an important staple for many people, and the arsenic levels that FDA found in the samples it evaluated were too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects. All consumers, including pregnant women, infants and children, are encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.

Parents often feed rice cereal to their babies as a first food. The FDA says to follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics in this case. Again, the experts essentially tell you to vary their diet:

... other foods are equally acceptable as a first food. Finely chopped meat provides a source of iron. Cereals made from other grains may be given first, or vegetable purees.  For older children, the advice is the same: A varied diet will decrease a child’s exposure to environmental toxins in any one food, while providing a wide variety of nutrients.

Crupain says Consumer Reports' advice is not to totally avoid these foods, but for people to cut down on the amounts they eat.

There are also ways to prepare rice to reduce arsenic exposure, according to the experts.

“People should try to remember that when we’re talking about cancer risk, or some other risk, all of our data is really based on long-term exposure,” he said. “And so people shouldn’t necessarily worry too much about what they’ve done in the past because they can make changes going forward, and that can make a difference.”

There are also ways to prepare rice to reduce arsenic exposure, according to the experts.

They say rinsing the rice thoroughly before cooking helps, as does “the traditional method for cooking rice in Asia.”

That method, they say, calls for using a ratio of 6 cups of water to one cup of rice. The excess water is then drained off. This method for cooking rice cuts arsenic content by 30%, Consumer Reports says.

So in the end, the experts say just watch your intake of any one particular food source.

Dr. Carolyn Murray, Director of Community Outreach and Research Translation for the Dartmouth Children’s Environmental Health and Research Center, put it this way:

“Our advice at this stage, while we’re waiting for more regulatory oversight and better labeling, is to use a range of food sources," she said. "I don’t think it’d be responsible to say, ‘don’t eat rice at all.’ I think it’d be responsible to seek out a variety of rice products.”

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