By Edward Bauman, M.Ed, Ph.D. and Jodi Friedlander, M.S., N.C.
In the 1944 cinematic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, two elderly maidens “charitably” murder lonely old bachelors with glasses of arsenic-tainted elderberry wine and then bury the bodies in the basement. Criminally speaking, this was a perfect choice of poisons because arsenic, which can be inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin, leaves the body quickly, leaving little to no trace that it was ever there. After three days a urinalysis will be negative, and even hair or fingernail testing, used to determine chronic exposures to minerals, would not detect low-level exposures, making diagnosis of arsenic poisoning difficult. Yet both acute high doses of arsenic and chronic low doses are quite toxic.
Arsenic is a semi-metallic element “present in the environment from both natural and human sources, including erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides” 1 and other agricultural products. Arsenic is also used medically, has been found to contaminate a wide array of Ayurvedic herbal formulations2, is used in the electronics industry, andis found in treated fence poles which, when burned, sawed, or sanded can lead to toxicity from inhalation. Arsenic, in its organic form, in foods such as seafood, is considered to have low toxicity, though there is some concern about consuming large amounts.
It is ingestion of inorganic arsenic, found in soil and water and taken up by plants, that is of greater concern. Because it inhibits essential metabolic enzymes, arsenic toxicity can affect many organs and can lead to the destruction of DNA and cells.2 In acute high doses, it can kill. But long-term low-dose exposures can contribute to serious health problems, including changes in the skin, peripheral neuropathy, type 2 diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, and liver toxicity.3 It can also increase an individual’s life-time risk of skin, bladder, and lung cancers.1
Inorganic arsenic is present in many foods in small amounts, including meats and poultry (which are treated with it or eat contaminated plants and/or water), fruits, vegetables, and grains, which absorb the mineral from the soil and water. Rice, unlike other plants, has a particular affinity for arsenic and will pick it up far more readily than fruits, vegetables, and even other grains (probably because rice fields are flooded, creating prolonged exposure), leading to the current contamination issue. But, how much of an issue is it?
Like many stories that are written and published in the media and even in scientific journals, there are often big scary headlines, but when one reads the original findings there will be much less threat than reported. With rice(and all other foods), there is a balance between the nutritional content and the toxic content. Nutrients protect, toxins harm. Low nutrient, toxic food is a health risk.
The toxicity of any food will depend on the chemicals in the soil and water to which the plant (or animal) is exposed, and because rice is so quick to pick up arsenic, any arsenic present will be quickly absorbed. Commercially grown rice is particularly vulnerable because arsenic once comprised the main ingredient in many pesticides. These were used extensively in the cotton-growing areas of the southern and south-central parts of our country, areas that now grow rice. Though banned in the 1980s, arsenic residues remain in the soil, and the rice grown in these areas (Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas) is particularly toxic4. Arsenic is still used in agriculture, mainly in animal feed. In fact, meat, fish, and poultry account for 80% of dietary arsenic intake for the U.S.,5 not rice, fruits, or vegetables. Water run-off from large animal operations, or the use of commercial animal manure as fertilizer, adds to the growing problem.
There is now published information on healthy people or animals being harmed from eating a normal amount (1-2 servings/day) of organic whole grain rice. At issue here is that whatever arsenic is taken up by the plant will concentrate in the outermost layer, the bran. Should we not eat organic whole-grain rice? Fortunately, be it brown, basmati, red, or forbidden, whole grain rice has a strong, well-balanced nutritional content that is protective and health supportive. It is high in B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, potassium, fiber, and trace elements.
The key is not to stop eating this nutritious grain, but to purchase only certified organic whole grain rice and eat it with organic fruits and vegetables and clean proteins and fats. Another means of reducing exposure is to soak rice for several hours or overnight, then cooking it using six cups of filtered water to each cup of rice, draining the excess water after cooking. This rinsing and cooking method can reduce rice’s arsenic content by 30%.4
The effects of toxic exposures are not great in a single serving of whole-grain rice but will be greater from concentrated foods, such as brown rice syrup and protein powders. We highly recommend strictly limiting these food products until producers have learned how to remove the arsenic. Toxic effects are cumulative. The very young, old, malnourished, and frail are most sensitive to exposures, which can lead to genetic alterations and early onset of chronic, degenerative diseases of the mind and body. But even those of us who are healthy and strong should be mindful about diversifying our food selections, including in our diets a wide variety of flavonoid-rich fruits and vegetables; selenium-rich foods, such as Brazil nuts and mushrooms; zinc-rich foods, such as seafood, meats, mushrooms, and pumpkin seeds; and whole grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, and millet. Flavonoids, selenium, and zinc have all been shown to be protective agents against arsenic poisoning.2 Be smart, eat organic brown rice and other whole grains, and know their place of origin. Diversify your food portfolio and increase your gains by reducing ongoing exposures through single foods. And remember that the risk of toxicity from eating organic rice, because of its nutrient-density, is much reduced.
This link to a Consumer Reports article can provide you with further information: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm?loginMethod=auto©rightYear=2013
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2013, Jul 7, update). Arsenic. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm280202.htm
- Natural Standard. (2013, copyright). Arsenic poisoning. Retrieved from http://naturalstandard.com/index-abstract.asp?create-abstract=generic-arsenicpoisoning.asp&title=Arsenic%20poisoning (Subscription required)
- Goldman, R.H. (2013, Feb 6, update). Arsenic exposure and poisoning [Excerpt]. Retrieved from http://www.uptodate.com/contents/arsenic-exposure-and-poisoning#H3
- Consumer Reports. (2012, Nov). Arsenic in your food: Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin. Retrieved from http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm?loginMethod=auto©rightYear=2013
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). (2011, Oct 1, update). Arsenic toxicity: What are the routes of exposure for arsenic? Retrieved from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=1&po=6