From the Desk of The Nutty Nutritionist

The Realities of Arsenic in Food

In Trends, Wellness on December 11, 2012 at 6:12 PM

By now, most of you have heard the reports (or seen the Dr. Oz show) alarming consumers about high levels of arsenic in apple and grape juice, brown and white rice products (like baby cereal), dairy and meat products, seafood, fruits, and vegetables.  With information like this, what is left to eat?  Many of these foods are supposed to be good for us, right?  Has everyone had it all wrong?  No wonder folks are worried and confused… Unfortunately, many media outlets tend to distort or oversensationalize the facts in order to improve ratings.  I am going to clear up some unfortunate misconceptions right here, right now and show you how to eat such foods in a sensible way.

41807704First of all, arsenic is a trace element that occurs naturally in our environment (as part of the earth’s crust) and is found in food, water, soil, and air.  In other words, we simply CANNOT escape it!   Arsenic is absorbed by all plants through the soil, but tends to be more concentrated in leafy vegetables, rice, apple and grape juice, and seafood.  Does this mean we need to avoid these foods entirely?  Not exactly.  There are things we can do to minimize our exposure which I will share with you now:

Arsenic compounds have historically been used in the production of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides (like on fruit trees),  as well as added to animal feed to prevent disease and stimulate growth.   This is a great reason to buy organically grown fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products as often as possible, which do not use chemicals on plants or animal feed.  Even when you are buying organic produce, make sure to wash them well as you would conventionally-grown options.  Another worthwhile strategy for reducing arsenic exposure is to increase the variety of foods in your daily diet—if you enjoy including white or brown rice with your meals, how about trying jasmine, basmati, black, or red rice grown in different regions around the world?  Or, forego rice altogether and try other grains, such as quinoa, in your recipes.  If you really, really, really want to have white or brown rice over all else, you can cut your exposure to arsenic by rinsing the rice first, cook it in a higher proportion of cooking water, and then drain off excess water after cooking.  As for rice baby cereal, switch to oatmeal just to be safe.  Worried about them apples?  Choose from the many available varieties, such as Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith, rather than eating the same kind day after day.  Now is a great opportunity to expand your culinary and taste horizons!!   As for apple juice, go ahead and avoid it—there is not much nutrition in it anyway.  As of now, no federal limits have been set for arsenic in most foods, but many US farmers are seeking improvements in rice, fruit, and vegetable cultivation in order to lower arsenic levels, but that will take some time before the problem is corrected.

Arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater, and in the US, higher aresenic levels tend to occur in New England, the Upper Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota), as well as the Southwestern states.   Yikes!  Before you make plans to re-locate, rest assured that today’s drinking water treatment processes are very effective at removing the majority of arsenic.  However, this is why seafood can be a problem, as the fish hang out in untreated waters.  Know a recreational fisherman who spends time on a small, inland lake in Michigan?  I sure do!  You certainly don’t want your fish intake to be limited to  such “local catch”.  Like I have suggested previously to minimize mercury exposure, choose a variety of fish species from a variety of different sources in order to minimize your exposure to both mercury and arsenic.

I hope this article has cleared up some concerns for you.  It is important to realize that arsenic is a part of our natural environment and is present in miniscule amounts in our drinking water and many foods and beverages we have safely consumed for years and years.  We are not all going to die of cancer because we eat rice or drink apple juice!  Our limited food exposure does not even begin to compare to the toxic occupational exposure to arsenic by workers involved in wood preservation, glass production, and semiconductor manufacturing–now these folks truly have something to worry about…  When Dr. Oz sounded the alarm, it was as if drinking a glass of apple juice amounted to working in a glass factory for 10 years!   I don’t think so, pal.  But he certainly got you to watch his show and up his ratings, didn’t he?

Don’t get me wrong, it is very important to be careful about what we put in our mouths and do our best to make healthier choices.  However, scare tactics are not going to help and tend to cause undue stress.  No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater—it is still possible to eat well and be healthy in this “arsenic-infested” world 😉

Live well!  Be well!

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