Arsenic in Our Food Supply: Which “Healthy” Food May Be Poisonous?
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Over the last several years, we have seen brief reports scattered across media about the presence of arsenic in our food supply.
Just last year, Dr. Oz raised red flags across the nation when he brought our attention to the fact that 10% of apple and grape juice samples taken from popular juice brands have total arsenic levels at around 23 parts-per-billion. (1)
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in order to be considered safe, drinking water and public water systems must contain less than 10 parts-per-billion of arsenic. (2)
Arsenic in Rice
A seemingly innocent food like rice can contain high levels of inorganic arsenic. For children, this chemical compound can cause long-term damage to affect developing brains and immature digestive systems.
Arsenic and many chemical compounds formed with arsenic are poisonous to the human body. In the United States, most people are exposed to arsenic through their diet. For example, when we eat seafood, we are exposed to organic arsenic, or arsenic that forms naturally in plants and animals. (3)
This form of arsenic is far less toxic than inorganic arsenic, which is found in pesticides and some wood preservatives. Inorganic arsenic can be as much as 600 times more toxic than some forms of organic arsenic. (4) Inorganic arsenic can contaminate our soil, as well as our food and water supply. (5)
The rice plant is naturally adept at extracting arsenic from the soil. Studies have found that it contains both organic and inorganic arsenic. (6)(7)
As it turns out, in addition to drinking water, rice is the largest source of inorganic arsenic in our diets.
This is a problem. Inorganic arsenic has been found to promote:
- Diabetes (8)
- Hypertension (9)
- Cardiovascular disease (10)
- Cancer (11)(12)
Unfortunately, many rice products are sold as health foods. And some are even marketed as beneficial for children and infants. (13)(14) These include:
- White rice
- Brown rice
- Organic rice baby cereal
- Organic baby formula
- Organic energy bars
Because children have developing brains and immature gastrointestinal tracts, they are especially susceptible to the noxious effects of arsenic in rice.
In fact, exposure to high levels of arsenic during childhood is associated with neurobehavioral problems, cancer, and lung disorders. (15)
Good Bacteria Can Metabolize Arsenic
While it is a good idea to heed warnings of arsenic exposure, especially when it comes to our children, it is also important to understand that the human body is equipped to handle a small degree of exposure to toxic substances, including arsenic.
For example, one study found that intestinal bacteria in mammals may help the body to detoxify some forms of arsenic. (16) When it comes to soil that has been contaminated with arsenic, another study found that gut bacteria play a profound role in the human body’s ability to metabolize arsenic. (17) Still other studies point out that the mineral and micronutrient selenium is helpful in the detoxification of arsenic. (18)
Now more than ever, it is important to support the growth of beneficial microbial communities in the gut.
To build a healthy gut, Body Ecology recommends eating fermented foods and drinking probiotic liquids on a daily basis. It is essential to get your child’s palate acquainted with the sour taste of fermented foods. It is also important to consider limiting your child’s exposure to processed, industrial food as much as possible.
New Thoughts on Brown Rice vs. White Rice
While brown rice is often promoted as being healthier than white rice, it has significantly more arsenic than white rice. (19) Brown rice is also more difficult to digest and contains anti-nutrients that limit its bioavailability. (20)
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Reports of arsenic in our food supply have made recent headlines. Arsenic and other toxic chemicals can be found in common foods in the American diet, like seafood, apple juice, and even rice. The rice plant contains both organic and inorganic arsenic and is one of the largest sources of toxins in the standard American diet!
A buildup of inorganic arsenic has been linked with diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Inorganic arsenic in rice is especially harmful to children with developing brains and immature digestive systems.
While it’s important to monitor arsenic in the food supply, it’s also comforting to know that the body can naturally resist some toxic substances, like arsenic, with the help of healthy bacteria found in fermented foods and probiotic liquids. For the best results, get your child acquainted with the sour taste of ferments at an early age and limit their consumption of processed foods to keep arsenic out of their diet.
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- JM Donohue, et al. Exposure to inorganic arsenic from fish and shellfish. In: Arsenic Exposure and Health Effects. Elsevier, Amsterdam. 1999; 89–98.
- P Andrewes, et al. Do arsenosugars pose a risk to human health? The comparative toxicities of a trivalent and pentavalent arsenosugar. Environ Sci Technol. 2004 Aug 1;38(15):4140-8.
- Subcommittee on Arsenic in Drinking Water, N.R.C. 1999. “Arsenic in Drinking Water.” http://www.nap.edu/catalog/6444.html. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
- JF Ma, et al. Transporters of arsenite in rice and their role in arsenic accumulation in rice grain. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Jul 22;105(29):9931-5. Epub 2008 Jul 14.
- PN Williams, et al. Variation in Arsenic Speciation and Concentration in Paddy Rice Related to Dietary Exposure. Environmental Science & Technology. 2005; 39 (15): 5531-5540.
- MS Lai, et al. Ingested inorganic arsenic and prevalence of diabetes mellitus. Am. J. Epidemiol. 1994. 139: 484–492.
- CJ Chen, et al. Increased prevalence of hypertension and long-term arsenic exposure. Hypertension. 1995; 25: 53–60.
- DR Lewis, et al. Drinking water arsenic in the United States: a cohort mortality study. Environ. Health Perspect. 1999; 107: 359–36.
- AH Smith, et al. Marked increase in bladder and lung cancer mortality in a region of northern Chile due to arsenic in drinking water. Am. J. Epidemiol. 1998; 147: 660–669.
- C Hopenhayn-Rich, et al. Bladder cancer mortality associated with arsenic in drinking water in Argentina. Epidemiology. 19967: 117–124.
- BP Jackson, et al. Arsenic, organic foods, and brown rice syrup. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 May;120(5):623-6. Epub 2012 Feb 13.
- MA Davis, etal. Rice consumption and urinary arsenic concentrations in u.s. Children. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Oct;120(10):1418-24. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205014. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
- M Vahter, et al. Health effects of early life exposure to arsenic. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2008 Feb;102(2):204-11.
- K Kuroda, et al. Enteric bacteria may play a role in mammalian arsenic metabolism. Appl. Organometal. Chem. 2001; 5: 548–552.
- T Van de Wiele, et al. Arsenic metabolism by human gut microbiota upon in vitro digestion of contaminated soils. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Jul;118(7):1004-9. Epub 2010 Mar 26.
- JF Stolz, et al. Arsenic and selenium in microbial metabolism. Annu Rev Microbiol. 2006;60:107-30.
- New study finds arsenic in infant formula, cereal bars. Food Safety: Consumer News. 2012 Feb 16. http://news.consumerreports.org/health/2012/02/new-study-finds-arsenic-in-infant-formula-cereal-bars.html
- M D Callegaro. [Comparison of the nutritional value between brown rice and white rice]. Arq Gastroenterol. 1996 Oct-Dec;33(4):225-31.