“Consumer exposure to inorganic arsenic in food raises a health concern,” states the updated risk assessment published at the end of January by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This confirms the concerns of those who wash rice before cooking and discard the remaining water due to fear of arsenic. Before jumping to conclusions, let’s see if such measures are necessary.
First, let’s clarify that no food alert has been issued, which only happens when contaminants pose an immediate risk to the health of consumers. EFSA carries out periodic risk assessments to assess the current status of specific foods, taking into account new scientific knowledge and consumer habits. After its evaluation, appropriate measures are implemented to protect the health of the consumer, if necessary.
Why is there arsenic in food?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust. It is widely distributed in the environment through natural sources such as volcanic emissions, forest fires, and erosion of minerals and rocks. Human activities such as mining, metallurgical industry emissions, and the use of insecticides and herbicides also spread arsenic.
This means that many foods can be contaminated with arsenic and its compounds, although some cases are more worrisome than others. For example, fish usually contain organic forms of arsenic such as arsenobetaines, which are of less concern compared to inorganic forms that are highly toxic. This is why the latest EFSA report focuses on evaluating the latter. Rice, cereals and food derivatives are the main sources of human exposure to arsenic. It is also worth noting that arsenic can be found in drinking water.
What are the health effects of arsenic?
Inorganic arsenic, known as a powerful poison throughout history and used as a pesticide, is found in smaller amounts in contaminated water and food. This can increase the risk of various cancers, including skin, bladder, lung, kidney, liver and prostate cancer. It can also lead to skin lesions, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular disease, abnormal glucose metabolism, and diabetes, among other adverse effects.
Arsenic is a compound that can be harmful to health as it is both genotoxic (a property of chemical agents that damage the genetic information within a cell, causing mutations) and carcinogenic. Any amount of arsenic can be dangerous. The severity of the effects depends on the dose and level of exposure. To illustrate, we can compare it to tobacco smoke, which contains genotoxic compounds. Even a small amount of tobacco smoke can lead to negative effects such as lung cancer. However, the likelihood of developing the disease increases with greater exposure and higher doses of smoke.
What foods should we avoid?
Water, rice, cereals and food derivatives contribute the most to dietary exposure to arsenic. However, this does not mean that we should avoid consuming them or take extreme measures at home. The EFSA report focuses on assessing the risk of arsenic consumption and does not recommend extreme measures. The Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) supports this view as follows:
- Cereals are a vital source of complex carbohydrates that, when combined with other foods, have a positive impact on health. To ensure a healthy diet, it is recommended to consume three to six daily servings of grains (such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, etc.), preferably whole grains, depending on energy requirements.
- Water is the preferred beverage for a healthy diet, and arsenic levels in water are generally minimal.
- Avoid eating hijiki seaweed because it contains high levels of inorganic arsenic.
To wash or not to wash
To address concerns about arsenic in food, let’s clarify some important details:
- Not all rice has the same amount of arsenic. In general, brown rice has higher levels than conventional rice (about 1.7 times more) because of the way it accumulates in the grain.
- The source of the rice also plays a role. For example, countries like India and Bangladesh have higher levels of inorganic arsenic in rice, mainly due to contamination of irrigation water. However, all rice sold in the European Union must adhere to the maximum limits set by European legislation, regardless of where it comes from.
- To reduce exposure to arsenic, it is recommended to follow a varied diet by consuming different types of grains. Consuming rice every day, especially whole wheat rice, may not be ideal, especially for certain population groups such as young children or people with gluten-related disorders. Instead, look for more variety and include other suitable grains like corn in your diet, while limiting your consumption of rice-based products like drinks, pasta and pancakes.
Washing rice thoroughly (rinsing six times) before cooking can remove between 10% and 30% of arsenic. Cooking rice with plenty of water (ratio 1:6) and discarding the remaining water can remove about 30-45% of arsenic. However, the effectiveness of these methods may vary depending on the rice variety. Some studies suggest that up to 57% of arsenic is eliminated, while other studies such as the one cited by AESAN show that only 11% is eliminated. Washing the rice can also eliminate some of the nutritional content of the rice.
Are we exposed to dangerous amounts of arsenic?
To assess the safety of arsenic, EFSA assessed the risk of skin cancer, which is an important concern. This conservative approach also covers other negative effects associated with this pollutant. This benchmark is also more conservative than the last risk assessment in 2009. EFSA concluded that dietary exposure to arsenic is a cause for concern for moderate and heavy consumers of rice. For example, someone who eats rice every day may have a 5% (or higher) risk of developing skin cancer compared to those who eat less rice.
In younger age groups, especially children up to 10 years of age, arsenic exposure levels are higher due to their lower body weight. However, EFSA says this does not necessarily mean they are at a higher risk. Adverse effects of arsenic are usually the result of long-term exposure, and most epidemiologic studies focus on adults who would have had much longer dietary exposures.
What food safety measures are being taken?
Various measures have been implemented in the agri-food industry for years to minimize arsenic levels. For example, irrigation water is subject to regular tests and inspections.
We also test drinking water and some foods to ensure they meet the maximum arsenic limits set by regulations.
Based on the new EFSA report, it is likely that additional food safety measures will be taken in the coming months to limit the public’s exposure to organic arsenic and total arsenic. This may include stricter controls on certain foods or the provision of consumption recommendations for vulnerable groups.
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