Arsenic is a common element found in nature. It occurs naturally in a variety of sources, from soil and water, to foods that we eat on a regular basis. There are several forms of arsenic, and some, particularly certain inorganic forms, are more harmful than others.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, two compounds found in inorganic arsenic are known carcinogenic substances and are associated with a number of devastating health effects. Yet most of us have no idea which foods that we eat on a daily basis might be potentially harmful due to high concentrations of this chemical.
Harmful Arsenic in Foods
Unfortunately, such is not the case for another very popular food: rice. Rice, both white and brown, has been shown to be the largest dietary contributor of harmful forms of arsenic. Unlike other common crops, rice is grown by flooding rice paddies. Andy Meharg, Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences at Queen’s University in Belfast, explains why this is important:
“It is this flooding that releases inorganic arsenic, normally locked up in soil minerals, which makes it available for the plant to uptake. Rice has, typically, ten times more inorganic arsenic than other foods and, as the European Food Standards Authority have reported, people who eat a lot of rice are exposed to worrying concentrations.” (Source)
The very means of growing rice contributes to the incredibly high levels of arsenic found in this plant. Although there are four different types of arsenic compounds in rice, two of them, monomethyl and dimethylated, are considered particularly harmful to humans. Up to 95% of these harmful compounds are released when rice is cooked. Rice-derived products, such as formula and snack foods, are also shown to contain these two carcinogenic substances in high concentrations.
“Some researchers consider that to keep the risk of getting an arsenic-induced cancer to an acceptable level, the daily adult intake should not exceed a quarter cup of uncooked rice containing no more than 50 parts per billion (ppb), and that children should consume even less in proportion to their body weight.” (Source)
Known Health Effects of Arsenic Ingestion
Should we be concerned about the long-term health implications of a diet heavy in consumption of rice products? And why doesn’t the government regulate the level of arsenic in foods?
To simply use the level of arsenic found in a food as a safety benchmark, many aquatic foods such as seafood would appear unfit for consumption, even though the types of arsenic found in these foods could be relatively harmless. Julian Tyson, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, notes that the regulation of arsenic in food is really just not feasible right now, and to regulate it well, “…we need to develop better ways to determine the amounts of arsenic and other chemicals in our food.” (Source)
What can you do in the mid-term, before more research can be done on how to effectively measure harmful arsenic compounds in food? Julian Tyson suggests: “…choose white rice (basmati or sushi), rinse it in cold water, and cook it in excess water – arsenic-free, of course.”
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