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Concerned/Confused about Arsenic in Your Food?
If recent news about arsenic in food is giving you a sense of déjà vu, you’re probably not alone. Around this time last year, Consumer Reports and a few other organizations raised concerns over levels of arsenic in fruit juice and rice. After a nearly year-long investigation, the FDA released some conclusions in early September reaffirming that the FDA considers there to be no short-term health risk related to arsenic in rice. Despite the FDA’s findings, the controversy continues because the long-term health risk remains undetermined.
Arsenic made headlines again at the beginning of this month when the FDA banned several (but not all) arsenic-containing drugs commonly used in pig and chicken feed due to evidence that meat from animals receiving these drugs contains more arsenic as well with worries that arsenic is getting passed onto crops via fertilizer created using manure from these animals.
Any amount of arsenic in food may seem frightening due to arsenic’s reputation as a strong poison. However, although arsenic is indeed deadly in large oral doses, it is also a natural element of the soil worldwide and nearly all foods contain arsenic. In the past, arsenic served as a pesticide, particularly in areas where rice and fruit are currently grown. Plants commonly absorb arsenic from the soil; rice absorbs it in greater amounts than other grains. Certain types of fruit - apples, grapes, and pears - also seem to contain higher levels of arsenic, at least when grown in arsenic-rich soil.
To be clear, it is not possible or even desirable to eliminate all arsenic from food. The concern is that excess arsenic could have negative long-term health effects. Several agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the International Association for Research on Cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency all recognize that inorganic arsenic can increase cancer risk (organic arsenic is considered less dangerous, although more research is needed to establish this). Unfortunately, research has not yet clearly defined the amount of arsenic in food that poses a significant long-term risk to human health. Thus, at present, the best approach from a nutrition perspective is simply to recommend choices that minimize arsenic intake from food.
Good news: those recommendations are easy to follow, and better yet, agree with guidelines already in place for a generally healthy diet. You can minimize your arsenic intake by simply eating a varied diet and paying attention to the ingredients in processed food. Here are some practical guidelines:
●If rice is your staple starch, think variety: try couscous, barley, grits or polenta, potatoes, squash, quinoa, amaranth, and others.
●Rinse all rice thoroughly in water before cooking. Brown rice retains the highest levels of arsenic among rice varieties, but you can greatly reduce the arsenic content by cooking it in extra water (like pasta). Directions here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Perfect-Brown-Rice.
●Limit intake of processed food products containing rice and brown rice syrup (a sweetener). Athletes who consistently consume large quantities of energy bars/gels should definitely investigate this because some products contain concentrated amounts of rice syrup.
●Choose organic and grass-fed sources of meat whenever possible
●Arsenic in food poses a higher risk to children, both in a biological sense and because children often consume more rice-based foods and juice than adults
- Don’t limit a child’s first foods to rice cereal. Try oatmeal, mashed sweet potatoes and squash, bananas, and avocados. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend rice over other cereal grains as a first solid food for infants.
- Limit juice to 4-6 oz (½ - ¾ cup) per day, another AAP guideline; this practice also reduces kids’ sugar intake and protects their teeth!
- Limit rice milk - don’t use rice milk as a child’s sole dairy substitute. Choose other non-dairy beverages and food sources of calcium for children who can’t have dairy.
- Limit processed snack foods containing rice products - include fruits and vegetables, nut butters, and a variety of grains when providing snacks.
These simple tips can help you take control of your arsenic intake. Stay tuned for more news about arsenic and food as the research sparked by this controversy comes to press. In the meantime, if you have specific questions - Ask The Sage.
- Nathan Myers, Nutritionist + Research Assistant for: