Although scientists and government regulators have long known about the ever-present threat of arsenic in our diet and water, it was unsettling when two major reports came out on the same day (Sept. 19) reminding us of the risk and the need to do what we can to minimize it.
Yes, arsenic. It's a naturally occurring mineral with a long history as a murder weapon, and, paradoxically, as a medicine, too. In some parts of the world, contamination levels are so high in food and water as to cause epidemics of skin, bladder and lung cancer. In the United States the effects might be harder to see, but they are still there. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that people drinking arsenic-contaminated water at 10 parts per billion would have a 1-in-300 risk of developing cancer over their lifetimes. Recent research suggests that people ingest about that much arsenic in a just a half-cup serving of rice, not an unusual amount for millions of Americans.
The two new reports came from the US Food and Drug Administration and the highly regarded Consumer Reports magazine, and both focused on the worrisome amounts of arsenic in rice and popular rice-based processed foods.
Environmental Working Group agrees that there's reason to be concerned. Many rice-based foods and some fruit juices have arsenic levels much higher than are allowed in drinking water. And contrary to some denials from the food industry, the contamination does include the form of arsenic that poses a serious risk to our health. It's long overdue for federal agencies to set health-protective limits on arsenic in food, but they are not moving quickly.
In the meantime, here are some easy-to-use tips on how you can reduce your, and your family's, exposure:
- Limit rice consumption. Try alternative grains such as quinoa, barley, grits/polenta, couscous or bulgur wheat.
- If you're preparing rice, rinse it thoroughly. Boil brown rice in a lot of water (as you do with pasta).
- Vary your diet. Look for alternatives to rice-based processed foods such as breakfast cereals, rice flour, rice pasta, rice cakes and crackers.
- Limit products that list rice syrup as a sweetener.
- Check your drinking water.
What parents can do to protect babies and children:
- Instead of rice cereal as the first solid food for babies, try orange vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash, bananas and avocados.
- Switch to non-rice baby cereals such as oatmeal or mixed grains.
- Limit certain fruit juices to a maximum of one-half to one cup a day.
- Avoid brown rice syrup as a sweetener in processed kids' foods.
- Do not use rice milk as a dairy substitute for cow's milk.
Look for other non-dairy drinks and make sure they don't list rice syrup as a sweetener. In many cases, dairy-sensitive children can be given water and other dietary sources of calcium instead of a highly processed dairy substitute.
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