When many of us hear the word ‘arsenic,’ we often pair it with ‘old lace’ and the two little old ladies from the play and movie who liked to poison visitors. It’s understandable, then, that thoughts of arsenic–atomic number 33 on the periodic table of elements–might make us jumpy. Why on earth would something so ‘scary’ be in our food?
It’s not some kind of conspiracy, despite a Nov. 18 Dr. Oz Show segment with Consumer Reports. Arsenic is actually naturally occurring in air, water, rocks, and soil, so it’s common for trace amounts to be in a variety of foods. The FDA monitors the quantity of arsenic in food to make sure that food is safe to eat, so no dietary changes are currently needed, including for infants and children. We spoke with Dr. Julie Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus on Foods and Nutrition at St. Catherine University, to get the deal on the latest advice from Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz. (The full video is below.) Here is what she told us:
Dietary recommendations to the rescue: Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz completely omitted some critical information about arsenic: Our bodies fight off any potential negative effects from arsenic with food components that are recommended in the dietary guidelines, including components in rice itself! Components like selenium, B vitamins, protein, fiber, and folic acid, the latter of which fortifies all US rice, prevent any negative health effects associated with arsenic. Dr. Jones notes that “those who meet the dietary guidelines have a natural defense against arsenic and other heavy metals.”
Weekly limits advocated by Consumer Reports are not supported by science: The fear about arsenic in American rice and other food isn’t supported. Japanese consumers eat substantially more rice than Americans and take in more than twenty times as much arsenic, on average; yet their lifespans are longer than those of other ethnic groups. Asian-Americans who eat substantially more rice, on average, have a lower risk of the cancers Dr. Oz talked about. The limits Consumer Reports advocates have nothing to do with any kind of proven health effects; they’re arbitrary. The coverage from Dr. Oz and Consumer Reports risks making the same mistake with arsenic and rice that we’ve made with mercury and fish: Fears of mercury were so trumped up that many Americans cut out fish all together, losing the omega 3s that are essential for health.
It’s not about a certain food: Arsenic is in a wide variety of food, since it is present in soil and water. There is nothing we can eliminate to remove all arsenic from our diets. Dr. Jones specifies, “Arsenic is in the food supply because arsenic is in the ground and water. It’s found in vegetables, fruit, rice, grains, fish and anything made from them like juices, beer, and wine. […] If you cut arsenic from your diet, you’ll die of starvation.” Targeting rice, particularly brown rice, which provides critical whole grains for health, is not useful. Whole grains like brown rice offer benefits in combating risks of heart disease, gastrointestinal cancer, and diabetes. (For more on whole grain benefits, check out this fact sheet). Even if there are higher levels of arsenic found in the brown rice itself, the incidence of disease associated with its consumption is actually lower.
So what should we do? Dr. Jones says, “I agree with what the FDA said when they looked at 1,300 food products last September : Don’t change your diet for arsenic. I’d say generally change your diet for the better. Get B vitamins, get fiber, and make half your grains whole.”
We’re disappointed to see the cherry-picking of information that went into the Consumer Reports analysis and article, as well as the needless alarm bells the magazine and Dr. Oz Show raised for consumers. It’s always a great idea to mix up your recipes and try new grains, but there is no reason to cut out brown rice, which provides great health benefits.
The best way to mitigate any concerns about arsenic is to eat diverse foods and follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Watch the Interview with Julie Jones: