Arsenic in Food

Dartmouth Superfund Research Program investigators have led efforts to learn how arsenic ends up in food and to identify food products with relatively high amounts of arsenic. A research project led by Mary Lou Guerinot, Ph.D.,Arsenic Uptake, Transport and Accumulation in Plants, aims to understand the genetic control of arsenic uptake in plants, with the eventual goal of protecting our food from arsenic contamination. Our Trace Element Analysis Core (TEAC),which is led by Brian Jackson, Ph.D. specializes in low-level trace metal analysis and speciation of environmental and biological samples. The TEAC is able to analyze food products and human samples to help the scientific community understand how much arsenic is in our food supply and whether this leads to elevated levels of arsenic in the human body.

Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic through Food

Exposure to inorganic arsenic via water has long been a priority of public health agencies and scientists, but more recent studies and investigations have led to concerns about exposure to inorganic arsenic through food. In particular, recent studies have identified inorganic arsenic in rice, rice-based food products (including cereal bars and energy shots), seaweed products and certain brands of juice. The current debate among public health officials centers on whether exposure to arsenic via food raises the same health concerns as exposure to arsenic through drinking water. The federal limit for the amount of arsenic in public drinking water, which is set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 10 parts per billion (ppb). In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration lowered the limit for the allowable amount of arsenic in juice, but there is no limit for the amount of arsenic in rice and rice-products. The FDA is currently collecting data and analyzing samples.

Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products

Scientific studies conducted at Dartmouth and other institutions indicate that rice consumption should be considered when designing strategies to reduce population-level exposure to arsenic. If grown in soil with arsenic, rice plants will extract arsenic and emerging data indicate that rice consumption may lead to potentially harmful arsenic exposure. A Consumer Reports analysis of NHANES data found that of 3,633 rice consumers, those consuming one rice food item before their urine was tested had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not. The participants who consumed two or more rice products had arsenic levels 70 percent higher than those who had not eaten any rice.

Still, few human data are available and further studies are needed to understand the extent of arsenic exposure through this staple food. Exposure assessment is particularly difficult because there is large variability in the concentration and speciation of arsenic in different rice cultivars; further, consumption of rice and its byproducts varies considerably by ethnic group and culture. Rice consumption varies, averaging ∼0.5 cup/d, with Asian Americans consuming an average of greater than two cups per day. Based on total arsenic, consumption of 0.56 cups per day of cooked rice is comparable to 10 micrograms of As in a liter of water, which is the current US maximum contaminant limit for public water supplies in the U.S.

Studies and information published by Dartmouth Superfund Research Program:
Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup
Arsenic concentration and speciation in infant formulas and first foods
Rice consumption contributes to arsenic exposure in US women
FAQ about Food Containing Organic Brown Rice Syrup

Consumer Reports:
Consumer Reports Updates Investigation (November 2014)
Consumer Reports Investigation (October 2012)

Food and Drug Administration:
Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products

UK Food Standards Agency:
Arsenic in Rice

European Food Safety Authority:
Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food

Institute for Agriculture and Industry:
Arsenic, Organic Formula and the Food System interview with Brian Jackson, Ph.D.:
Arsenic in Rice?

Articles from Representatives of the Rice Industry:
Letter from the CEO of Lundberg Farms
Rice is an important, nutritional and safe part of a healthy diet
What Nutrition, Science and Medical Professionals are Saying

Deborah Blum Article: Cites Dartmouth Study and Reports on Arsenic in Rice Causing Genetic Damage. Read more in Discover Magazine

Arsenic in Juice

Studies about levels of arsenic in apple juice made headlines in 2011 after the Dr. Oz show tested popular brands and aired the results. The issue was first brought to light by the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 and Consumer Reports subsequently published its own tests on both arsenic and lead in fruit juice in November of 2011. It also reported on a study that found participants who reported drinking apple or grape juice had total urinary arsenic levels that were on average nearly twenty percent higher than those that don't. In 2013, the FDA proposed a new “action level” for arsenic in apple juice.

More Resources for Consumers

Environmental Working Group:
Reducing Arsenic in Your Diet

Arsenic in Food: FAQ

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Arsenic in Food Products

University of California Arsenic Health Effects Research Program:
Early exposure to arsenic has extraordinary impacts on young adults

Huffington Post:
Arsenic's Lethal Legacy: How A Notorious Poison Permeates Our Food And Drink
10 Ways to Get Arsenic Out of Your (and Your Kids') Diet

Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society:
Arsenic in Rice