Maybe you’re not a big rice eater, but chances are you have some rice-based eats on your pantry shelves, whether it’s a box of Rice Krispies or a package of rice cakes. Here’s the scary part: Along with those spoonfuls of cereal or mouthfuls of cracker, you’re also consuming arsenic, sometimes at worrying levels, according to reports issued recently by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports looked at 223 samples of everyday rice-based foods, from boxed rice to infant cereal to rice pasta, a staple for those on gluten-free diets. Researchers used the standard set by New Jersey on arsenic levels in drinking water—5 ppb (five micrograms of arsenic per liter of water). Why use the Garden State as an example? Because its regulations are even more stringent than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Experts found the levels of inorganic arsenic, the toxic kind, in many rice products often exceeded New Jersey’s drinking water levels.
But those aren’t the only foods that have been tested for arsenic. In early 2012, the consumer magazine found worrying levels of the chemical in apple and grape juice. And a study by researchers at Dartmouth University found large amounts of arsenic in formulas, cereals, and energy bars sweetened with brown-rice syrup, usually seen as a healthier alternative to high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.
Wondering how arsenic got into your food in the first place?
Although we tend to think of arsenic as the poison of choice in 19th century novels, the chemical occurs naturally in the soil, in rocks, and in water. Inorganic arsenic was also used in pesticides until the 1980s, so there’s a legacy of it in the soil. Most plants have low levels of arsenic, but because rice is grown in flooded paddies and takes up arsenic more efficiently from the water, it contains more of the carcinogen than, say, wheat or barley, says Brian Jackson, Ph.D., an associate professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth and the lead author of the study that looked at brown-rice syrup.
While your body flushes out arsenic pretty efficiently in two to three days, the danger comes from long-term, low-level exposure, says Jackson. If you ingest it every day along with your breakfast cereal, snacks, and water, it can up your risk for bladder, lung, skin, and prostate cancer and decrease production of your red and white blood cells. Young kids, because of their smaller, developing bodies, are even more at risk, says Jackson.
Until the FDA sets standards on arsenic levels in food, which the agency promises to do soon, how can you protect yourself and your grandkids from consuming too much?
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