Gluten-Free Diets Often Contain High Levels of Arsenic
For those of us on a gluten-free diet, rice and rice products often make up a large portion of the food we eat. Rice cereals, brown rice pasta, white and brown rice flours, rice crackers, rice milk and a whole boatload of gluten-free products are often consumed daily along with white or brown rice as a side dish. However, when Consumer Reports recently investigated over 200 samples of products that contain some of these forms of rice, they found significant levels of arsenic.
Arsenic in Rice Isn’t a New Problem
The dangers of arsenic in rice isn’t new. The problem has been around for years now, especially when referring to contaminated drinking water. Recent studies done on food have only surfaced within the past five years or so, but the food industry is blaming arsenic’s presence in food and drinks on the fact that arsenic occurs naturally in soil and minerals.
While that’s true, that isn’t the type of arsenic Consumer Reports is concerned about. Inorganic arsenic – the type found in pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, contaminated water, and other sources – is extremely toxic when consumed in large quantities. In fact, mounting evidence has also shown that even low levels of arsenic consumed over a lengthy period of time can result in serious health issues. Even so, there is no federal limit for the presence of inorganic arsenic in food or juices, only in water.
Arsenic in Drinking Water Measures Safety
There’s no dependable scientific evidence that the arsenic found in rice poses a danger to health, so it’s no surprise that the 34 billion-dollar rice industry is claiming that the public’s concern about foods with arsenic in them is over-the-top. Their business perspective is that the risks of eating rice are minimal compared to rice’s benefits. That may be true for the general population, but it isn’t true for those on a gluten-free diet. With more and more people beginning to go gluten free, the arsenic in gluten-free foods is, and should be, a major concern.
The amount of arsenic allowed to be in a quart of municipal or bottled drinking water is 10 parts per billion (10 ppb). To put that amount into a gluten-free context, a little more than 1/2-cup of rice will give you the same amount of arsenic currently found in a quart of water.
Consumer Reports used the arsenic levels allowed in water to judge the level of arsenic in rice. The samples they tested included organic products as well as conventional or store brands, and specifically included the types of products you’d consume on a gluten-free diet.
The range of arsenic they found was 11 to 87 percent of the allowable level in water with the average falling somewhere around 55. What this showed was that arsenic in food isn’t an organic problem, and it isn’t a conventional problem either. The current concern isn’t for those who eat a well balanced diet. The concern is for children and those who eat a high-rice diet. If you eat gluten free or dairy free, the problems associated with arsenic toxicity are accumulative. Even lower levels in a product can be deadly if you consume a variety of arsenic-tainted foods on a regular basis.
How Does Arsenic Get Into Rice?
Arsenic is a natural occurring semi-metal. It’s tasteless and odorless. It often contaminates drinking and irrigation water in specific areas of the U.S. Certain areas of New England, the Southwest, and the Midwest have been found to be highest in naturally occurring arsenic, but that type of arsenic isn’t the problem.
According to Consumer Reports, the U.S. has used 1.6 million tons of arsenic for agricultural and industrial uses, with half of that being used on orchards, vineyards, and cotton fields between the years of 1960 and 1980. Although no longer legal to use, residues continue to contaminate soils and water sources even today. In addition, the FDA only recently took steps to stop the use of herbicides that contain arsenic, but many other arsenic additives are still in use.
Rice and other plants absorb arsenic from the soil and water during production. Rice plants are grown in water-flooded conditions, which makes them more likely to take up the arsenic from the water and store it inside the rice. Although insecticides of the lead-arsenic variety were banned in the U.S. in 1980s, arsenic is still allowed in animal feed today. That makes current fertilizers as well as contaminated water potentially problematic, but it also means that rice isn’t our only concern.
Additional Foods with Arsenic in Them
Fruits, fruit juices and vegetables (including potatoes) have also been shown to contain various amounts of arsenic. In earlier studies, Consumer Reports found a significant amount in apple juice and grape juice. There’s about 18 percent of the safe level in water for fruits and 24 percent in vegetables. Lower than rice, but if you’re eating the five fruits and vegetables per day that’s recommended by today’s health authorities, including their peel, it could be harmful for children and those on gluten-free diets when coupled with additional sources of rice.
Even so, cereal products that contain rice seem to be the current health concern for most Americans due to the large amount of people who eat cereal everyday for breakfast and sometimes snacks. If you’re on a gluten-free or dairy-free diet and using white or brown rice, rice flour, rice milk, potatoes and other produce every day, you don’t have to be eating cereal to have high levels of arsenic in your blood.
Health Hazards of High Levels of Arsenic
According to the Center for Disease Control, eating foods that contain low levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting, abnormal heart rhythm, nerve damage (a feeling that someone is sticking you with pins and needles), decreased red and white blood cell production, and damaged blood vessels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also adds that arsenic can cause your skin to discolor and thicken. It causes stomach pain, diarrhea, numbness in your hands and feet, partial paralysis, blindness, warts, and corns.
The EPA has also tagged arsenic as a carcinogen. That means it raises your risk of getting various cancers. High levels of arsenic increases your risk of bladder, skin, liver, kidney, prostrate, or lung cancer. It also increases your risks of immunodeficiency, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. There is also evidence that pregnant women and their babies can be adversely affected by the arsenic a woman eats while pregnant. Since arsenic crosses the placenta, it has been found in both the baby before birth as well as mom’s breast milk.
Arsenic in Brown Rice is Higher
Rice grown in certain localities can be more problematic than in other locations. That has to do with the practice of using arsenic-laced pesticides on cotton crops several decades ago. In the southern U.S., soil and water sources are still contaminated with inorganic arsenic today. Rice grown in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana and Arkansas has the highest levels for arsenic, but rice from other states contains it as well. It’s just that southern growers make up about 76 percent of the total U.S. market. That means that most brands are highly contaminated.
As for brown rice, many health authorities consider it more nutritious, so we are often told it’s better to eat brown rice for health rather than white. For that reason, many people on a gluten-free diet have switched from using white rice flour to brown rice flour in order to take advantage of its higher vitamin, mineral, and fiber content. However, brown rice is much higher in inorganic arsenic, the toxic type, because arsenic collects in the outer layer of grains. Rice that’s had the bran removed is actually less toxic than brown varieties, so simply switching to brown rice or brown rice flour won’t help reduce your arsenic consumption.
The Danger in Gluten-Free or Dairy-Free Diets
The message isn’t to avoid all forms of rice, but to become more aware of how much rice you’re eating. For most Americans, the amount of arsenic in rice isn’t a major issue unless you’re consuming a large amount of organic products that use brown rice syrup as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup. Typical grains eaten in large quantities are wheat, oatmeal and corn, which all contain very low levels of arsenic. For the average American, rice consumption tends to be rather low. This may be why the FDA and other health authorities have been so slow to act upon the problem.
With 1 in 133 Americans estimated to have celiac disease and 6 percent thought to have gluten sensitivity, those on gluten-free diets are typically eating or drinking far more rice than the average person. It's in almost all gluten-free products and often the main flour substitute for typical foods such as breads, pancakes, and cookies. That puts those on gluten-free or dairy-free diets at a higher risk for health problems associated with arsenic.
Consumer Reports discovered that a single serving of rice eaten every day can raise arsenic levels by 44 percent over those who don’t eat rice, and those who eat two or more servings per day can have levels as high as 70. Parents who have had their dairy-free children tested for arsenic, due to a moderate consumption of rice milk, have found this to be true. Urine tests showed these children had 10 to 20 times more arsenic in their urine than would have been there if the kids had been given water instead. These numbers are even more problematic when you consider that the amount of arsenic thrown off by the body in the urine is only about half of what you eat or drink.
What You Can Do to Minimize the Risks
Grant Lundberg is the CEO of Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale California. Lundberg Family Farms is currently testing their rice products, so they can deal with the problem of arsenic appropriately. The FDA is also in the process of collecting and analyzing 1,200 samples of rice and rice products, which is due to be completed by the end of the year. Since the FDA has no “adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products,” reducing the health risks is up to us.
If you’re on a gluten-free diet, here are several things you can do to minimize the potential risks:
Check the label on the products you buy for rice. When you’re new to a gluten-free diet, one of the first recommendations you’ll receive is to check the ingredients on the products you use for gluten. If you do the same thing for rice, rice flour, brown rice syrup, and rice milk, you’ll become more aware of the amount of rice you’re eating on a daily basis. Most people on a gluten-free diet have never given a thought to the amount of rice or corn they eat every day.
Eat a balanced diet. Once you have a better idea of how much rice you’re eating, try to bring more balance into your diet. Take the time to seek out products that don’t use rice and begin to eat more fruits and vegetables rather than baked goods. If you need help coming up with ideas, do a web search for low-carb recipes, breakfast suggestions, and snack ideas. Since low-carb dieters don’t use rice in any form, those recipes and diet ideas can be helpful to bring more balance to your meals and snacks.
Experiment with new grains and different milk alternatives other than rice. Gluten-free manufacturers use a lot of rice flour in their products because white rice is bland and cheap. Although white rice contains less arsenic than brown rice, it’s a good idea to start branching out and experiment with grains and milk alternatives you’ve never used before. Try experimenting with amaranth or corn flour in your muffins and cakes. You can make oatmeal cookies with ground oats or applesauce and banana muffins with millet and sorghum. Both almond milk and coconut milk are tasty.
Organic quinoa and corn pasta is also excellent. It tastes extremely close to regular wheat pasta, although the corn flour does give it a more yellow appearance. Many people who used to eat whole-wheat bread absolutely love sorghum flour because it has a slight wheat taste. Low-carb recipes can help you find ways to work gluten-free oat flour, almond flour, coconut flour, and ground flax seeds into your favorite recipes. You can also experiment with light buckwheat flour.
Peel your potatoes, fruits and vegetables. Arsenic is found in the skin of your fruits and vegetables, as well as the outer bran of grain, so you should always scrub your produce well, and then peel it.
Change the way you cook rice. Instead of using a rice cooker or steaming your rice using just enough water to be absorbed, rinse the rice several times before cooking and boil each cup of rice in 6 cups of water or more, as you would pasta. Drain the rice and serve. When you rinse, boil and drain rice, you can remove as much as 30 percent of its arsenic content. If you don’t like white rice boiled, at the very least, rinse your rice several times, soak it for at least an hour, drain the water, and then use fresh water or broth to cook it in.