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What You Need to Know About Arsenic in Food

arsenic in rice

Recent buzz around arsenic in rice and rice-based foods has people worried, and understandably so. Who wants to be eating potentially harmful chemical elements along with their stir fry or granola bar?

Unfortunately, there really is no way to avoid arsenic in food, and since there is also no federal standard for how much arsenic can be present in food products, we don’t have much control over how much we’re ingesting.

Here are answers to some of your other questions about arsenic.

What is arsenic?

A chemical element, naturally present in the earth’s crust, just like lead, cadmium, or mercury.  Levels and forms of arsenic vary according to geography and soil type. Some forms are more toxic than others.

How does arsenic get into our food supply?

Mining and other industrial processes result in movement of arsenical compounds in the environment. Dangerously high levels of arsenic in soil tend to be near industrial plants emitting smoke contaminated with arsenic, or in farming areas where arsenic-containing herbicides or animal drugs have been used.  Herbicides with arsenic are often applied to golf courses, sod farms, and cotton fields (this is completely legal).

What foods contain the most arsenic?

Any crop can contain arsenic, but some – like rice – are more efficient in taking arsenic up from the soil. Many rice fields in the U.S. were formerly used to grow cotton, which is why arsenic is especially present in our rice and rice-based products (brown rice syrup – which is in almost all commercially sweetened foods that don’t contain high fructose corn syrup, rice starch, rice flour, etc). Apple juice has also sometimes been shown to contain high levels of arsenic.

Does it help to buy organic?

Organic products do not necessarily contain less arsenic. But, organic farming techniques forbid the use of harmful toxic chemicals and antibiotics in animals, so supporting organic farming (by buying organic) may over time help limit the amount of arsenic being released into our food system.

How much arsenic is safe to consume?

There is no federal standard for arsenic in food, and experts have not yet agreed on what is a permissible amount should be. The FDA and World Health Organization is tackling the issue but we are likely still years away from action to reduce exposure.

Is there anything I can do?

My own recommendation is to eat a varied diet.  Don’t rely too heavily on any one food, so your exposure to any one contaminant is reduced. If you eat a lot of rice at your house, start to introduce other grains like quinoa, millet, bulgur, wheat berries, farro, etc. so that you get a wider variety of nutrients and are exposed to less arsenic. You can also reduce exposure by reducing consumption of processed foods – and this includes the “natural” versions – which often contain brown rice syrup.

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