I love going to the specialty Asian grocery stores in town. You can get produce for a song and play snack russian roulette with odd treats like squid flavored chips (which are terrible, by the way). When shop there I tend to stock up on things like green onions, fresh ginger, frozen edamame, tofu, and economy-sized bags of rice, all of which are way cheaper than they are at the Kroger. Some of the groceries have English directions but a lot of them are covered in a language that means absolutely nothing to me. Obviously I still shop there, but the cheap prices and mysterious packaging always leaves me feeling a little suspicious of the food quality. These feeling may be completely unfounded, but whatever, I go back time and again and leave eager to figure out just how to prepare the random foods I’ve purchased.
On the other hand, there may be something to my worries. The past few years I’ve been hearing whispers about crazy-high concentrations of arsenic in rice products. I heard the FDA doesn’t regulate for it (but unfortunately that doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat) and I know arsenic poisoning is a serious issue in Asia and South America.
And then I saw this article in Grist. Suspicions confirmed. Except, it’s not just the shady brands at the Asian grocery store. It’s everywhere you shop. F***. Oh well, the veil of ignorance has been lifted. Now is as good a time as any to figure out exactly what this means.
THE FACTS: Inorganic arsenic deposits occur naturally in the subsurface and are only found in certain parts of the world. This means that arsenic contamination is a regional problem which is rooted in the geology of an area but really it depends on how/if the government (or whoever is in charge of the water supply) chooses to treat water prior to its use. Most people are exposed to arsenic in toxic amounts when their main source of drinking water is an arsenic-laden aquifer but industry and agriculture contribute to heightened arsenic concentrations in surface water as well.
If a person drinks these waters for 5-20 years, they will likely suffer from arsenic poisoning or arsenicosis. The World Health Organization links this to a laundry list of nasty health issues, including “skin problems (such as colour changes on the skin, and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet), skin cancer, cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet, and possibly also diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders”.
Luckily, we (I) live in the U.S., where our water is usually tested to make sure we’re not poisoning ourselves. The federal limit of arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (it was lowered from 50 ppb in 2001) even though the EPA says that there is no safe level of exposure to inorganic arsenic. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, this means that if you consume 2 liters of water per day you have a 1 in 500 chance of getting cancer from arsenic in tap water. Ok, fine. I’ll probably get cancer from something else before I get it from my drinking water. But what about food? What’s the federal limit on that? Wait…there ISN’T a limit?! No, sorry, checking food for arsenic is just excessive. The thing is, people have checked. This month Consumer Reports published an in-depth study on arsenic concentrations in COMMON foods and came up with some pretty shocking results. Since prolonged exposure to arsenic is the real problem, they also made some suggestions on how to alter your diet for a longer, healthier life.
So is rice just the poster child for the reform of arsenic standards or is it really that much worse for you than other foods? Fruits, veggies, and other grains (even those which are certified organic) all have the potential to contain arsenic. The chemical structure of inorganic arsenic is similar enough to nutrients plants actually need to survive. So, in a case of mistaken identity, plants readily absorb arsenic from the soil even though it serves no developmental purpose. According to professor John M. Duxbury of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., “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.” So now I need to worry about my kale and spinach intake? Duxbury says no, “because we eat a much lower volume of leafy greens compared to other kinds of foods, arsenic intake from this source is also low”. Hmm, I may eat more leafy greens than the average person but what’s life without a good kale salad? Anyway, back to rice. Rice products are highlighted as a potential danger because of how common they are in people’s daily diets…especially children’s foods. Additionally, rice is more susceptible to arsenic contamination than other grains because it is in contact with soil AND grows in water (if this water is carrying arsenic the situation worsens). This infographic below offers a quick synopsis of the situation and is a good representation of how arsenic affects rice production here in the U.S. You’ll see our issues have more to do with agricultural practices than groundwater pollution.
The FDA has done some of their own research which found “average” levels of inorganic arsenic in rice products. Their professional opinion is that “consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains…to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.” Not to hate on the FDA, but rice and rice products are extremely common in this country. If certain foods contain 20 times the amount of a carcinogen that is permissible in tap water I’m going to go ahead and say they need to up their standards. To be fair, the FDA is currently working on a pretty comprehensive study of their own which is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.
I’m not trying to be an alarmist with all of this, but this information should be seriously considered. Many people make careful decisions about the quality of food they put in their bodies and choose to use their purchasing power to support local and organic producers. People in the U.S. don’t seem to be keeling over from food-related arsenic poisoning but that doesn’t mean eating rice, puffed rice cereal, and drinking rice milk everyday won’t expose you to dangerous levels of arsenic. Fortunately, there are some better ways to go about eating rice products:
- Limit your intake of rice products. If several of your staples are rice-based, consider diversifying your grains.
- Rinse rice before use and cook it in more water than is suggested so you can strain it before eating. I don’t have any data to back this up but the Consumer Reports study suggested it so it’s worth a shot.
- Contact your local water utility (who is required by law to provide a report on all contaminants and toxins found in your local drinking water) and ask them about the arsenic concentration. They probably won’t give you an average concentration but they’ll be able to tell you what it was the last time they sampled. Just because the federal limit for arsenic is 10 ppm, that doesn’t mean that’s how much you’re regularly exposed to. Finding out what you’re dealing with may give you some piece of mind.