Arsenic in (Conventional and Organic) Food

Recent published research and news stories are shining a light on the emerging story of both naturally occurring and man-made arsenic contamination in our food and water.

Arsenic, which can be found naturally in soil and water, is a suspected carcinogen and thus these reports have been concerning.

Furthermore, arsenic-based pesticides were widely used in this country in the 20th century and are still used in other parts of the world. Through what we call the “circle of poison,” the United States, in some cases, continues to manufacture agrichemicals that we have banned for use, to be sprayed on crops in other countries and then, outrageously, we allow those imports to come back to feed our families.

The US also continues to allow arsenic feed additives in poultry production.

Because arsenic has historically been used as a pesticide in orchard production, along with lead-based pesticides, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumers Reports, recently published an in-depth article looking at contamination in apple and grape juice. This is of particular concern because children drink a disproportionate amount of fruit juice, in terms of their body weight.

There have also been widespread press reports of a recent Dartmouth study that focused on contamination in rice syrup, a sweetener. That study included a look at infant formula.

Although the researchers discourage consumers from abandoning rice as an important nutritional source, The Cornucopia Institute will be carefully looking at additional research going forward.

It appears that rice produced in certain parts of the world, and certain parts of this country, has higher levels of arsenic. Rice grown on land that used to be in cotton production tends to have higher levels, since pesticides containing arsenic were popular on cotton fields. For example, researchers found that rice produced in California had significantly lower levels of arsenic than rice produced in the South Central regions of the US.

While other crops also absorb arsenic from the environment, rice soaks up arsenic from the soil, or irrigation water, more readily than other crops.

Our advice, as always, is to eat as near 100% organic diet as possible. It should be pointed out that arsenic contamination can occur in both conventional and organic rice, but organic foods will lower your overall toxic load.

Difficult decisions need to be made, especially by parents of young children, in terms of fruit, fruit juices, infant formula and rice-based cereals for babies.

The one infant formula manufacturer using organic brown rice syrup acted in good faith, choosing rice syrup as the sweetener of choice in an effort to stay away from high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice (sugar) and other ingredients of concern. There are conflicting results between the manufacturer’s testing results and the tests performed by the Dartmouth researchers, possibly using a different protocol, which should be sorted out in short order.

Breast milk is naturally high in sugars (in the form of lactose), and infant formula manufacturers seeking to replicate the sugar content of breast milk have to add sweeteners to formula. Because milk-based formula is naturally higher in lactose, lower levels of additional sweeteners are necessary than in soy-based formula. The higher levels of added organic brown rice syrup in soy-based formula may explain why the Dartmouth researchers found higher levels of arsenic in the soy-based formula (the levels in the milk-based formula samples were higher than in the samples using other forms of sweetener, but fell within the tolerance level set for drinking water).

Unless there is a health imperative, choosing milk-based formula reduces the need for added sweeteners and potential additional contaminants.

One proactive move parents can take to protect their families is to get their drinking water tested for lead and arsenic. Families with a private well should arrange for testing, and those on a municipal water system should consult local officials for testing results. If these levels are high, steps should be taken immediately to use filtering systems that are well-equipped to remove arsenic and lead. This will pay immediate dividends in terms of a family’s long-term health.

Researchers have also said that people should not abandon rice consumption, but that it might be wise to vary the grains in one’s diet (millet, quinoa, wheat couscous, etc.), until more comparative testing data is available for rice and products that use rice as a principal ingredient.

We must remember that it is the overall exposure to chemicals, including lead and arsenic, in both food and water, that we have to be concerned with.

….. From The Cornucopia Institute staff

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