This post is the first in a series titled: “What Can I Eat if Everything is Toxic?”. I’m going to very basically explore different claims about “toxic” foods and determine if you need to be worried about the health threats from these food items, if you should simply proceed with caution, or if there is no health threat determined. The goal is to remove some of the fear around foods by setting the record straight regarding certain claims. This week, I’m starting with arsenic.
What is Arsenic?
Arsenic is a chemical element present in the environment from both natural and man-made sources. The two types of arsenic compounds found in the environment are in the organic form, which is mostly harmless, and the inorganic form which is associated with long term health effects.
How Does it Get in my Food?
Arsenic based compounds were once widely used as pesticides for different crops, including cotton. These compounds have since been banned, but they still remain in the soil and can leach into foods. Although all crops grown in this soil can accumulate the toxin, rice, in particular, is vulnerable because it takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains.
In addition to rice, red wine, drinking water, and apple juice are all known to contain elevated levels of the harmful inorganic arsenic.
What Are the Symptoms?
Let’s be clear that chronic arsenic exposure in low doses from food is very different than acute arsenic poisoning or long-term environmental exposure. Acute arsenic poisoning (as in, you take in a lot all at once) leads to red blood cell destruction, convulsions, coma, and death. It is, after all, a poison.
However, the symptoms of consuming inorganic arsenic over time are less pronounced. Your risk for certain cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes increases. In some cases, there are skin lesions, or sensory and motor nerve defects. Most concerning is the effect on the developing fetus and young children, the most vulnerable populations. There is a risk to the developing immune system, growth development, and IQ development.
How Can I Reduce my Risk?
- The key, as we’re going to find out as I continue this series, is to vary the diet. When we have a dietary restriction of some kind, we may end up consuming a lot of the same food items. Many gluten-free products contain rice as an ingredient and items with alternative sweeteners may also contain rice. You don’t have to avoid rice or rice products altogether, just mix it up!
- On that note, the first food your baby consumes does not have to be rice cereal. Baby can eat finely chopped meats, cereals made from other grains, and puree vegetables. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to offer their children a wide variety of foods in order to decrease arsenic exposure from rice.
- In order to reduce the risk of arsenic consumption from apple juice, children 6 months to 6 years should have no more than 4-6 ounces juice per day and older children should have no more than 12 oz juice per day. However, avoiding juice and giving whole or mashed fruit is always a better bet.
- If you need to be gluten free, sub amaranth, buckwheat, millet, polenta, quinoa or grits for rice. For those who eat gluten, you can also sub bulgur, barley, and farro for rice.
- If you can, avoid white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, or Texas, as these had higher levels of arsenic than rice samples from anywhere else.
- Opt for white rice occasionally, as arsenic levels are higher for brown rice than for white, since brown rice retains the bran layers.
- When cooking rice, rinse the rice thoroughly before cooking, ideally until the water runs clear. Using 6 cups water to 1 cup rice and then draining excess water after cooking removes about 30-40% of the inorganic arsenic from rice. By pre-soaking the rice overnight, one report claims the arsenic level is cut by 80%.
Do I Need to Worry?
No, you do not need to worry, but you should be aware of your consumption of high arsenic containing foods including rice, apple juice, and wine. Aim to eat these foods a few times a week, rather than a few times per day. You should also periodically test your water for arsenic if you rely on a well for drinking water.
The most important thing to remember is to vary your diet and the diet of your children. Children are more susceptible to the effects of arsenic since they have less body mass and are still growing and developing.