The food we eat today is a lot different compared to the food people ate 100 years ago. Now we have genetically modified (GM) foods, foods contaminated with lead, foods injected with hormones, and even foods that have been treated with antibiotics.
But while you may have heard of the dangers associated with lead, GM products, antibiotics, and hormones, what do you know about arsenic in food?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while arsenic is a naturally occurring substance in the environment, prolonged exposure has been linked to higher rates of skin, bladder, and lung cancers, as well as heart disease.
“Arsenic in food is one of those ‘forgotten’ toxins,” Valerie Mets, CCN at UHS Binghamton General Hospital, told Saludify. “It can be in so many different foods like fruits, vegetables and grains. It’s one of those toxins the nutritional world just has to accept. Unfortunately, arsenic can be really bad for health. Because you’ve probably eaten at least one product within the last month which contains arsenic it’s important to be aware.”
Why is there arsenic in food?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the Earth’s crust, so it’s expected that plants and their products have absorbed this potential toxin from soil and water.
According to Food Insight, arsenic is present even in the air, so it is virtually impossible to completely avoid it, and because arsenic is present in the environment, buying organic foods will not protect you from this contaminant.
Unfortunately, certain areas of the country may have higher levels of arsenic than others, as the substance was used for years in pesticides and is a by-product of certain industrial activities. The FDA, however, has been aware of arsenic in food supply for more than 20 years and has expanded its surveillance to include certain high-risk products.
“Because arsenic is naturally occurring in soil and was used for many years in pesticides, we know there are trace amounts of arsenic in many foods,” the FDA said in a statement. “In response, FDA has expanded its surveillance activities in rice to ensure that consumers are protected. In fact, beginning in October 2011, FDA began a further study of arsenic in rice and rice products in order to determine the level and types of arsenic typically found in these products.”
Dangerous amounts of arsenic in food
Because arsenic is an uncontrollable environmental pollutant in food, there is no way to determine the exact level of arsenic in each individual food product; however, dangerous amounts of arsenic in food are often found in products that grow in watery areas (rice), products with leaves, and plants which have fruits with high water content (apples).
“All plants pick up arsenic,” John M. Duxbury, PhD, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said in an email to WebMD. “Concentrations in leaves of plants are much higher than in grains of plants. Thus, leafy vegetables can contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, especially when they are grown on arsenic-contaminated soils.”
And even though the FDA monitors the levels of arsenic in water, some foods which contain arsenic may be slipping through the cracks because there is currently no process to monitor arsenic in foods.
According to a research study from Consumer Reports: “No federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods, but the standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). Keep in mind: That level is twice the 5 ppb that the EPA originally proposed and that New Jersey actually established. Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.”
Other foods which contain arsenic in potentially dangerous levels, aside from rice, include:
- fruit juices
- juice concentrates
Fruit juices and concentrates are at particular risk because they combine the liquid from multiple fruits, magnifying the level of arsenic in a single serving.
According to the Associated Press, the FDA announced last Friday that it will change its rule on arsenic in apple juice, making standard levels the same as drinking water.
And while chicken seems out of place among a list of fruits and vegetables, arsenic levels in chicken, according to researchers at John Hopkins University, have been primarily attributed to the use of antibiotic therapy. The main antibiotic responsible for the high arsenic levels in chicken was discontinued by its manufacturer in 2011, though other arsenic-containing products are still in use.
That’s not the end of the story when it comes to chicken, however. According to a report from USA Today, the Food and Drug Administration admitted in 2011 that small amounts of arsenic were found in chicken as a result of arsenic-containing feed. Previously, the agency had denied that arsenic was making its way into edible parts of chicken, claiming the contaminant was excreted in feces.
The product to blame, Roxarsone, was pulled off the market by its maker, Pfizer, and the FDA maintains that the amount of arsenic in chicken–if any–is negligible.
Do I need to worry about arsenic in food?
The FDA maintains there is no cause for concern regarding current arsenic levels in foods, though the agency is monitoring the issue.
“There is clear evidence that inorganic arsenic is a public health problem in some water supplies, and this is why the EPA has established a drinking water standard,” stated the agency. “FDA’s position is that similar evidence of a risk to public health does not exist for apple juice. Unlike drinking water, the levels routinely found in apple juice are either not detectable or occur at very low levels.”
But according to WebMD experts, exposure to arsenic in food may cause potential health consequences including:
At low levels of exposure:
- Decreased blood cell output
- Damaged blood vessels
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Pins and needles sensation in the extremities
At high levels of exposure:
- Increased risk for skin, bladder and lung cancers
- Cardiovascular disease
- Impaired brain development
- Low birth weight
- Breathing issues
“This is a relatively new area of research,” arsenic expert Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD., told WebMD in regards to long-term arsenic exposure. “When a substance is a carcinogen, it’s generally a carcinogen through the whole range of exposure levels.”
How can you avoid arsenic in food?
Unfortunately, it is not possible to completely avoid arsenic in food.
The best way to protect yourself is to:
- Know the level of arsenic in your water by calling your water company or having your well tested.
- Eat organic chicken to avoid antibiotic contamination.
- Eat organic produce as much as you can.
- Eat organic brown rice.
- Cut back on the amount of bottled juice you drink.
If you are concerned about your arsenic exposure level, speak to your doctor about blood testing to determine if you are at risk.