What You Should Know about Arsenic in Food and Beverages

Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment – it’s present in the air, rocks, water and soil and because it’s in soil, plants can take up arsenic. Certain plants and trees are particularly efficient at absorbing arsenic from the soil. Arsenic can occur in all the food groups.  Given the increased research in this area as well as an increase in media attention, consumers want to know if they can continue to enjoy food and beverage products that may contain trace levels of arsenic. The answer is: Yes.   It is important to note there have been no studies that link arsenic levels typically found in U.S. food to any adverse health conditions. 

Over the past few years, several high-profile news reports have raised unfounded concerns about whether low levels of naturally occurring arsenic in rice and apple juice pose a potential health risk for consumers.

What’s Being Done to Ensure Safety of Apple Juice?

Based on current research, it is important to point out that the low levels of inorganic arsenic in juice are far too low to cause any short or long term health concerns (see sidebar).  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to monitor arsenic content in foods and beverages and has done so for more than 20 years.  The FDA is committed to public health and evaluates all available data to determine safety and assesses any and all potential health effects from all food sources.

In July 2013, the FDA announced additional plans to ensure that juices continue to be a safe product.  The FDA is proposing an “action level” that is consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency’s level for drinking water which is consumed in higher quantities than apple juice.  By doing this, the FDA remains vigilant to ensure a safe product and to protect the health of consumers.

Why arsenic in rice?  Why now?

Rice has been grown and consumed in the United States for more than 300 years, and is known to have first been cultivated and consumed in Asia thousands of years earlier. Yet, only in recent years has the issue of arsenic in rice generated consumer interest. This interest arose after media attention from highly publicized studies raised questions about the arsenic content of rice.

There have been no documented incidents in which arsenic in U.S. rice has led to any health problems with consumers.  In fact, many populations that consume up to five times more rice than Americans actually have lower overall disease rates.  (Iso and Kubota, 2008.)

Sidebar:  Organic Arsenic and Inorganic Arsenic

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of much of our food supply, there are two types of arsenic which can be found naturally in water, food, air and soil.  They are organic and inorganic which together are referred to as “total arsenic.”  Scientists agree that the organic arsenic is less of a concern in food.  The ability to separate and measure levels of organic and inorganic arsenic independently – also known as arsenic “speciation”—is a critical analytical need that has only recently been possible due to new test methods.  This new technology has also contributed to increased interest and awareness especially by the media and consumers. 

The FDA is currently broadening its sampling studies for rice to include wider varieties, geographic regions and a wide range of rice based foods.  In addition, the FDA will take into consideration special populations such as children and others who may consume higher amounts of rice.  The Agency is expected to complete its analysis in 2013 and if necessary, will evaluate what steps may be deemed necessary to reduce arsenic exposure from rice and rice-based products.

Arsenic in Foods:  Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Excretion (ADME) Considerations

Scientists agree that the body has a way of processing inorganic arsenic ingested through food and water and converting it to organic arsenic, which is of less concern.

  • In humans, more than 90% of inorganic arsenite and arsenate are absorbed from drinking water, but only 60-70% of dietary arsenic is absorbed (or “bioavailable”)
  • Ingested monomethylarsonic acid \[MMA\], and dimethylarsinic acid \[DMA\], organic forms of arsenic, undergo limited metabolism, do not readily enter the cell, and are primarily excreted unchanged in the urine; they are considered to be less of a concern.
  • Inorganic arsenic is not formed during the metabolism of organic arsenicals, and the majority of ingested arsenic is rapidly excreted in the urine within a few days.  It does not accumulate in the body.

Contributions of inorganic arsenic intake by foods.  \[Xue et al., 2010\]

The FDA has been testing for arsenic in food since 1991 through its Total Diet Study and more recently has expanded its surveillance activities to ensure that consumers are protected.  Based on the FDA analysis there is no evidence whether these levels indicate a higher level of potential health risks.

What does this mean for consumers?

The FDA has not indicated that the average daily intake of arsenic posts a hazard or health risk to consumers.  A study conducted by Xue et al., estimates that the “total average daily arsenic exposure from food is 0.38 µg/kg/day (0.00000000038 g/day).  Summarizing the inorganic contributions by food commodities, it is estimated that about 10% of total arsenic exposure from foods is the toxic inorganic form of arsenic.” The elimination of any one food group would not completely eliminate dietary exposure.

No Need to Change Your Diet  

The FDA is not recommending anyone change their diet due to the low levels of arsenic in rice, juice or other foods and beverages.  The current advice from FDA is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet rich in a variety and in moderation.  This recommendation will minimize any potential dietary exposure and is also recommended for good nutrition.

It’s important for consumers to understand that all foods contain trace levels of naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic.  As science, technology and testing methodologies continue to evolve; our knowledge about potential risks, wholesomeness and safety will greatly increase.  That’s why consumers should feel assured and follow FDA’s guidance to stay safe and healthy.

References:

Xue, J., V. Zartarian, S. Wang, S. Lui, P. Georgopoulos. 2010. Probalistic Modeline of Dietary Arsenic Exposure and Dose and Evaluation with 2003-2004 NHANES Data. Environ Health Perspect. 118:345-50.

Iso, H., Y. Kubota. 2007. Nutrition and Disease in the Japan Collaborative Cohort Study for Evaluation of Cancer (JACC). Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 8 Suppl:35-80.

Additional Resources:

Why FDA Proposes an “Action Level” for Arsenic in Apple Juice

Questions and Answers:  FDA Analysis for Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products

FDA Looks for Answers in Arsenic and Rice

U.S. Food and Drug Administration:  Arsenic

U.S. Food and Drug Administration:  Total Diet Study

IFIC Foundation:  Arsenic and Our Food – The Facts