Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA - Arsenic in food: New worry or a tempest in a teapot?
Until recently, no one really thought much about arsenic in food. In water, maybe, but even then, it was assumed that municipal water supplies were monitored well and arsenic was usually off our radar.
Recently a Dartmouth College study found high levels of arsenic in rice and brown rice syrup (1). The latter is often used as a sweetener in organic and gluten-free foods and some foods made for toddlers and young children.
Long-term exposure to excessively high levels of arsenic increases the risk for certain cancers, particularly stomach and lung cancer. Key words here are “long-term” and “excessive amounts”. .
Why is it in food? Arsenic is an element that’s naturally present in the soil, water, and air. It’s is an element but not a nutrient. We have no defined need for it. No matter how organically grown your fruits and vegetables are, they’ll naturally have trace amounts of arsenic in them because soil naturally contains some arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is present in pesticides and industrial products.
Should you care?
Not necessarily. It’s good to know what’s in your food, by any account. It’s important for me to know, because I have many patients, especially Latinos, who eat rice and beans every day, sometimes twice a day. Asian-Americans often eat five times the amount of rice each day that the average American does. These groups should care, too, because if arsenic is a problem, these people would – in theory – be more vulnerable.
But they’re not. Indeed, these population groups who eat a lot of rice actually have a LOWER risk for cancer and other diseases.
Let’s calm down
It’s also important to remember that food, along with water, soil, and air, has always contained some arsenic. Is this a problem? So far, there has never been any documented evidence of adverse effects in food, so likely not. Arsenic doesn’t accumulate in the body – you urinate it out in a day or so.
Foods like fruits and vegetables and grains like rice, including brown rice, can make a major and positive contribution to our diets. Even enriched white rice, often maligned, contains folate, and enriching grains with folate, since 1999, has been attributed with reducing certain birth defects by up to 39%.
Currently, there are no government guidelines on safe levels of arsenic in foods, but there probably should be, because if we know more, we can do more. Studies like this will probably goose the government’s efforts to produce research about safe levels in food. Such guidelines would be a win-win for both consumers and the food industry alike.