When I first thought of arsenic in my food, I remembered “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a movie from the 1940s where two old ladies nonchalantly poison their elderly suitors with a little arsenic in their elderflower tea. We’re not keeling over from the levels of arsenic in our food – yet – but the concern exists. Much of our fruit juice, especially apple and grape juice, is laced with inorganic arsenic. So is much of our rice. And so are some of our chickens.
On a Middle Eastern note, Moslems returning from the Hajj bring back Zamzam water from a holy well in Mecca, water which, according to a BBC report, is contaminated with an extremely high arsenic level. Initially refuting the BBC report, the Saudi Arabian government has since begun a Zamzam water distribution project which will hopefully clean the water up.
While organic arsenic is found in nature, inorganic arsenic is a chemical used in agricultural insecticides. It’s also a part of fertilizers and animal feed. It dissolves easily in water and remains in the soil for decades. It’s almost unavoidable in our diet, because our very water contains it. The FDA has standardized safe levels of arsenic in drinking water.
Many popular brands of American rice grown in previously contaminated areas have proved to contain unsafe levels of arsenic. While small amounts won’t kill a person all at once, prolonged ingestion of arsenic is known to cause a wide variety of cancers.
What does prolonged ingestion mean? It means the foods we absorb from infancy on. Baby cereals based on rice. Apple juice, the kid’s favorite drink. And on through life, with as much arsenic in half a cup of rice as the daily limit considered safe in drinking water. Then there are breakfast cereals based on rice, and rice cakes. Brown rice is not exempt from contamination: in fact, because most of the chemical stays on the unpolished outer layers, brown rice will have more arsenic than white. Not to mention chickens and cattle nourished on arsenic-laced feed.
Consumer concern is forcing the FDA to mandate lower levels of the toxin in apple juice, which is a blessing for our kids. The FDA moves in mysterious ways – one mystery being why it moves so slowly. But the Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based NGO, reports in a press release that the FDA has finally gotten off its chair, adding a hint about foods imported from China:
“We’re extremely pleased by the news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a standard that would reduce the allowable level of arsenic in apple juice, now holding the popular drink consumed largely by children to the same standard as our drinking water.
“Over the last two years, we and the Empire State Consumer Project have been lobbying for these stricter standards… We’ll continue to lobby the agency to make sure they finalize and enforce these proposed standards.
“We hope the FDA will continue to monitor the levels of heavy metals and contaminants in our foods, particularly imported foods. Two-thirds of apple juice that Americans consume—more than 400 million gallons annually—comes from China. The FDA should focus more of its attention on imported foods, especially those that are most often eaten by children.”
There’s hope, not only horror, for safe food. In the meantime, here’s what you can do to reduce the levels of arsenic in your own cooking:
- Americans can find out which rice brands tested out as high in arsenic by following this link.
- Those of us living outside the US can’t always know the origins of our rice. However, we should be rinsing our rice very well before cooking. This first step applies to anyone cooking rice, anywhere.
- Another suggestion is to cook the rice in six times the amount of water, draining excess water off when the grains are cooked.
- Vary your diet with millet, couscous, buckwheat, polenta, quinoa, barley, or other grains.
- Avoid processed rice foods like rice milk and rice syrup in children’s diets.
- Scrub your root vegetables thoroughly before cooking.
- Limit amounts of fruit juice that you drink over the day. ConsumerReports.org says that pediatricians recommend no juice at all for babies younger than 6 months; that children up to age 6 should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day, and older children no more than 8 to 12 ounces.
More on arsenic in our food:
- Arsenic-Fed Chickens – Watch Out!
- Simple Technology Can Save Millions From Arsenic Poisoning
- Ceramic Coated Pans May Be Killing You
Image of child drinking juice via Shutterstock.