Published September 8, 2016
It’s a great business model: Start (or find) a life-threatening trend, develop (or acquire) a product absolutely necessary to counteract...
— William Wilberforce
Over the last several years, various studies from Consumer Reports have shown “worrisome” levels of arsenic in many mainstay foods commonly fed to children, including—of all things—fruit juices1 and organic baby cereal.
Consumer Reports researchers first tested the arsenic levels in apple juice after Dr. Mehmet Oz alerted his viewers that arsenic levels in 10 of 36 samples of apple juice were higher than the maximum safe limits established for bottled and public water, though no such limits had been set for juices. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed that the type of arsenic found in juices and most other foods is an organic type that is “essentially harmless,” the subsequent Consumer Reports investigation reached a different conclusion: About 10% of fruit juice (apple and grape) samples exceeded the 10 parts per billion (ppb) levels of arsenic established as safe for water, and most of that was the inorganic type, which is a known carcinogen.
The tests sampled a wide range of readily available products, including bottles, boxes and concentrates from popular national brands such as Motts, Apple & Eve, Seneca, Gerber and Minute Maid, among many others. Consumer Reports stresses that their results were based on spot checks of many samples and can’t be used to judge any particular brand. The issue seems to be that even with responsible farming, residues of lead-arsenate insecticides, banned in the 1980s, continue to contaminate soil, as does mulch made from arsenic-treated lumber, also banned since 2003.
Other sources of inorganic arsenic contamination include coal-fired power plants and smelters for processing copper or lead. It was further noted that current production of apple juice most often involves mixing water with juice concentrates from multiple sources, many of them in China, and there is some concern that apple-growing regions in that country may still rely on arsenical pesticides.
Given the amount of fruit juice consumed by children in particular, the Consumer Reports data prompted their Consumers Union to call for establishing safety limits for arsenic in fruit juices, recommending that maximum arsenic levels for juice should at least match the standard 10 ppb established for water and, preferably should be stricter than that at no more than 3 ppb. Subsequent to this report, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for an “action level” of 10 ppb, the same level as had previously been established for drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2
Arsenic has two different forms: Naturally occurring arsenic is generally considered to be nontoxic, while inorganic arsenic has long been recognized as a poison. The Consumer Reports study found that most of the arsenic identified in the fruit juices derived from agricultural and industrial practices that have dramatically increased the public exposure to the inorganic form, which has been associated with bladder, skin and lung cancers, as well as with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and immune system disorders.
Even the organic type of arsenic, however, may convert to the inorganic type and can contaminate groundwater wherever it is naturally abundant. Use of herbicides containing organic arsenic has raised concerns because of arsenic’s potential for converting to the inorganic form in soil and water. Similarly, poultry-feed additives containing organic arsenic may convert to the more toxic inorganic arsenic either in the bird or in the poultry droppings, which are often used for fertilizer.
Accepting that exposure to both organic and inorganic arsenic may constitute a health hazard, Consumer Reports researchers wanted to know if there is any real increase in exposure associated with drinking fruit juices. Study analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data for nearly 3,000 people showed that those who drank apple juice had approximately 19% higher levels of urinary arsenic compared to those who did not drink juice, and those who drank grape juice had 20% higher levels. Since the NHANES data do not include children under age six, among the biggest juice drinkers, actual percentage increases are likely to be even higher.
Dr. Robert Wright, an associate professor at Harvard University whose research focuses on the pediatric effects of exposure to heavy metals, expressed concern over the Consumer Reports analysis, saying, “Because of their small size, a child drinking a box of juice would consume a larger per-body-weight dose of arsenic than an adult drinking the exact same box of juice. Those brands with elevated arsenic should investigate the source and eliminate it.”1
Referring to dramatic decreases in lead levels in children stemming from rigorous bans on lead in paint and gasoline, Columbia University’s Joseph Graziano calls for equally aggressive measure to eliminate arsenic, saying, “We tackled every source, from gasoline to paint to solder in food cans, and we should be just as vigilant in preventing arsenic from entering our food and water because the consequences of exposure are enormous for adults as well as children.”1
A follow-up Consumer Reports study in January of 2012 showed that in “essentially every one” of over 200 samples of rice products ranging from cereals to drinks had measurable amounts of both organic and inorganic arsenic.3 The products tested included all types of cereals from infant rice cereals that are often a baby’s first solid food to hot cereals to ready-to-eat cereals, and from rice cakes and crackers to many other rice-based products such as rice pasta, flours and drinks. That Consumer Reports study was a “snapshot” of rice-based foods and included many products labeled as organic, which label is no indicator of arsenic level.
To determine whether people who consumed rice actually acquired higher levels of arsenic, NHANES data were again analyzed and showed that one serving of rice daily was associated with 44 percent higher urinary levels of arsenic than those who didn’t eat rice, and those who ate two or more rice servings per day had 70% higher levels.
Overall, the highest levels of arsenic were found in rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, states that produce 76% of U.S. rice, and for every brand tested, brown rice was found to have higher levels of arsenic than white rice. Though it is acknowledged that brown rice has nutritional advantages over white rice, the milling process that produces white rice removes a lot of the outer layers of the rice, where arsenic congregates. Dr. Richard Stahlhut, an environmental health researcher out of the University of Rochester, who led the data analysis effort, says, “Despite our taking into account other common sources of arsenic, and no matter which way we sliced the data, we see a very strong association between rice consumption and arsenic exposure.”
In addition to recommending that babies in particular should not eat more than one serving of rice cereal per day and children under age five should not have rice drinks on a daily basis, the 2012 report concluded that a standard is needed for arsenic levels in rice. The report also called for industry efforts to reduce arsenic levels in rice, and for government agencies to ban pesticides containing arsenic, arsenic-containing manures in fertilizers, and arsenic-containing drugs or byproducts in animal feeds.
Updating that 2012 report, Consumer Reports released an on-line update in 2014, printed in their January 2015 magazine, in which they answered some of the questions that arose from the earlier studies.4 Evaluating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s data from 2013,5 the Consumer Reports researchers found that both rice cereal and rice pasta have higher levels of inorganic arsenic than was previously thought.
Arsenic, whether an organic, natural byproduct of minerals in the earth’s crust, or inorganic, released into the environment through pesticides, fertilizer or manufacturing, exists in soil and water and is readily absorbed by rice plants. Regular exposure to even small amounts of arsenic is associated with increased risk of cancers, heart disease and diabetes, and this latest Consumer Reports analysis suggests that prenatal exposure may also affect the infant immune system.
Since there are still no federal determinations on arsenic limits in rice or rice products, Consumer Reports suggests looking at the origin of the rice. Rice from California, India and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S., for instance, had some of the lowest levels of arsenic, while rice from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas had higher levels. Brown rice tended to have the highest levels of inorganic arsenic, but some of that increased exposure was said to be offset by the increased nutritional value of brown compared to white rice. Brown basmati rice from India, Pakistan or California had significantly less inorganic arsenic compared to other regions. It was also suggested that, while some of the nutrients might be lost, rinsing the rice prior to cooking could reduce the arsenic content by as much as 30%.
Stressing the importance of varying the types of grains included in the diet, the report noted that grains including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta or grits had almost no measurable inorganic arsenic. Similarly, bulgur, barley, and farro, had very little. Quinoa varied, though arsenic levels were much lower than were found in rice.
Finally, Consumer Reports put together a point system for rice products, recommending no more than seven “rice points” (broken out for children and adults) be consumed in a week. Click here to view the chart.
1 Arsenic in your juice: How much is too much? Federal limits don’t exist. Consumer Reports January 2012.
2 FDA News Release. FDA proposes “action level” for arsenic in apple juice. July 12, 2013.
3 Arsenic In Your Food: Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin. Consumer Reports November 2012.
4 How much arsenic is in your rice?: Consumer Reports’ new data and guidelines are important for everyone but especially for gluten avoiders. Consumer Reports November 2014.
5 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Analytical Results From Inorganic Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Sampling. September 2013.