arsenic in food

Arsenic in food – Are we being poisoned?

Arsenic: The favorite poison of murder mystery writers. Now we find there is arsenic in food, especially rice! Are we being poisoned like the victims in books?

Arsenic's position on the periodic tableArsenic is an Element

Arsenic is an element. It’s like sodium, potassium, carbon, oxygen or gold. There’s arsenic in soil, water, plants, animals and even in the air (from volcanic gases). On the periodic table it’s in position #33 and is abbreviated As.

It’s an essential element for animals. When fed a diet completely free of arsenic rats, goats and chickens don’t grow well and have a shorter lifespan. It’s likely that people need arsenic too. In the future you may find arsenic listed on the back of your vitamin/mineral pill bottle—in very tiny amounts. Current estimates are that we need 12μg/day or .00000042 oz/day or possibly a little more. Estimates are that in the US we get about 30μg/day of arsenic from food and water. They also estimate that an upper safe limit is 140-250μg/day.

An element is like a LEGO block. You can put elements together to make bigger structures which are called compounds but you can’t easily break elements into smaller units. LEGO blocks can be crushed with a sledge hammer. For elements the sledgehammer would involve fission, fusion or radioactivity. Elements are stable—arsenic has been around since the formation of the earth. It’s the 53rd most common element on earth.

Healthy Levels of Arsenic in the Diet

At very low levels arsenic in food is healthy; at slightly higher levels it is benign as our bodies have great systems to remove arsenic. It gets filtered out by the kidneys to our urine or stashed in hair and fingernails, all nice repositories were arsenic does no harm and is soon discarded. When there is excess consumption of arsenic over a long period of time, which mostly happens when well water has lots of arsenic, the risk of some cancers goes up. On the other hand consuming about 1/8th of a teaspoon of inorganic arsenic will kill you just as described in the books. Here are more details on arsenic poisoning if you are writing a murder mystery.

Arsenic often is stuck together with other elements like blocks of LEGOs. These blocks are called compounds, or organic arsenic if the compound includes carbon as well as arsenic. Organic arsenic has been found to be quite safe. It’s readily filtered by our kidneys and leaves the body in our urine without causing harm even in higher doses. If someone threatens to poison you with arsenic steer them to the organic form and survive! The arsenic in fish, shellfish and other animal products is organic arsenic so you can ignore it as a health concern.

How to Lower Arsenic in Rice

There is concern with arsenic in rice because rice grows in flooded fields. Water is good at leaching arsenic out of the ground and rice readily absorbs and stores it in the rice kernel. Arsenic levels in rice become high if the element is abundant in the soil or arsenic based pesticides were used on the field—even if the spraying occurred decades ago. When rice is polished, arsenic is removed along with the bran. This is why white rice has less arsenic than brown rice. Washing rice before cooking does not lower the arsenic content but if it’s cooked like pasta in lots of water and then drained, the arsenic load can be cut in half (see FDA post on arsenic). I have revised my post on Microwave brown rice to add a strategy to lower the amount of arsenic when cooking brown rice.

Public Health Concerns with Arsenic in Food

The public health concern for arsenic in food is mainly for infants who have undeveloped systems and probably don’t excrete arsenic as well as adults. Furthermore rice cereal is usually their first solid food. This means it’s eaten on a daily basis at a very young age. New feeding recommendations are to use a variety of cereals when introducing solids to limit arsenic in the diet. Baby food manufacturers are also now testing and lowering the arsenic in rice cereal.

There’s less concern for people who eat rice on a daily basis. They’re still encouraged to eat a greater variety of grains or to cook their rice with lots of water. A one cup serving of brown rice can have up to 12μg of arsenic or half the daily usual intake for the average person (see consumers report for more detailed numbers). This amount of arsenic isn’t desirable but not that terrible. It becomes more problematic if the diet includes a lot of other rice products: rice milk, rice flour, and brown rice syrup as a sweetener.

Arsenic in food isn’t limited to rice. Fruit juices, specifically pear, grape, and apple juice, have at times tested high in arsenic. The arsenic is due to the soil the trees and vines are grown in and the water used in processing the juice. You never know which foods are high in arsenic. The best strategy is to eat a wide variety of foods. This limits exposure to potential poisons as well as optimizing the nutrients in the diet.

Are you concerned with arsenic in food and water? Would you consider cooking rice like you do pasta? Please comment and let me know how you are dealing with the arsenic in food.