To me, arsenic has always been something little old Victorian ladies used to get rid of pesky tenants in their otherwise-reputable boarding houses.
Of course, it’s more than just this: arsenic is a naturally-occurring substance and a citizen of the periodic table. It’s had various other uses throughout the centuries, as a wood-preservative, a common ingredient in copper or lead alloys, insecticide, military-grade chemical weapon, etc.
Arsenic is a known carcinogen in the same class as asbestos and formaldehyde, and in high enough levels it’s quite toxic. Why care? Well, if your gluten-free diet includes a lot of rice-based items, you might be inadvertently overexposing yourself to this cancer-causing element.
Most of the time, we hear about humans being exposed to arsenic via ground water. The World Health Organization recommends a cap at 10ppb (parts per billion) of arsenic in drinking water, which is also the recommended level of the United States and the EPA’s standard for all public water supplies in the US. There are no standards in the US for arsenic levels found in foods (or non-water liquids).
As was recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of researchers from Dartmouth University recently tested a variety of infant formulas and foods for arsenic. Examiner’s report goes on to explain that the team found high levels of arsenic in rice-based products: levels of more than six times the recommended 10ppb for drinking water.
Because rice is often such a water-intensive crop, it tends to store higher quantities of whatever pollutants might be found in the water and soil its grown in. Examiner goes on to quote Dr. Andrew Meharg, who explains that rice in the US is often especially high in arsenic, because many farmers grow a type of rice that’s been modified to thrive in high-arsenic soil.
Dr. Meharg also answered a series of questions for the Gluten-Free Dietitian, whose article on the subject is very much worth reading.
In general, the controversy boils down to this: if your diet or the diet of your children is heavy on rice, rice flour, brown rice syrup as a sweetener — as many gluten-free diets are — you should strongly consider investigating the sources of rice you eat and limited those sources likely to be high in arsenic.
Does your diet lean heavily on rice, or do you focus on other grains (and if so, which?)?