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Arsenic in Apple Juice Examined, But What About Other Foods?

Arsenic in apple juice and other foods

The Food and Drug Administration is accepting comments on its proposed “action level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for the presence of inorganic arsenic in apple juice. While the public may be thankful for this effort, what about other foods and their arsenic content?

Is there arsenic in your food?

In case you didn’t know, arsenic, which is a heavy metal, is associated with a risk of cancer and other health concerns, including the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, skin lesions, developmental problems, and neurological disorders. One study even found a twofold increased risk of pancreatic cancer associated with high arsenic levels.

Arsenic can appear in two different forms in food: inorganic, which has cancer-causing properties; and organic, which is less toxic than the inorganic form but it can still cause health problems. Much of the buzz about arsenic in food in recent months and years has centered around two main foods:

  • Apply juice, which is the subject of the current FDA efforts.
  • Rice and rice products, which include a great number of foods that are fed to infants and young children. Since this age group is highly susceptible to toxins and many of their foods are rice-based, the presence of arsenic in rice is a major concern.

But the presence of arsenic in foods does not end with apple juice and rice. In fact, arsenic can be found in some vegetables, fruits, fish, meats, poultry, cereals, drinking water, and even beer, and one key reason is that arsenic is everywhere: in the air, soil, and water, so avoiding it can be difficult. Much of the arsenic in the environment comes from the use of fertilizers, animal feed, and insecticides.

Therefore, plants are exposed to arsenic during their growing cycles and can take up the toxin into their edible parts. Likewise, water supplies contain varying levels of arsenic, so consumers can get arsenic from a variety of sources.

To make matters worse, the EPA has noted that there is no safe level of exposure to inorganic arsenic, even though the federal limit has been established for drinking water at 10 ppb, the same limit proposed by the FDA for inorganic arsenic in apple juice.

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Arsenic in other foods
The presence of arsenic in rice is a concern, especially since so many products contain rice, and it is a mainstay in the diet of infants and toddlers. Tests conducted by Consumer Reports in 2012 revealed that many of the more than 200 samples of rice products (e.g., rice cakes, infant cereals, hot cereals, rice pasta, rice flour, rice beverages, and rice crackers) had arsenic levels greater than 5 ppb. Repeated consumption of products with high arsenic levels may result in health problems.

Plants are not the only foods that contain arsenic. Recent reports reveal that chicken also is a reservoir for arsenic. One study from Johns Hopkins released in May 2013 noted arsenic levels in chicken that were greater than those that occur naturally, although they were still below the federal danger levels.

According to a New York Times article, which reported on the study, the inorganic arsenic levels found in chicken was lower than those found in previous studies in rice. It also pointed out that the arsenic comes from deliberately added products—roxarsone and nitarsone, which are used in food production, and that exposure could result in an increased risk of cancer for consumers over a lifetime.

Arsenic and your children
In a telling study published in December 2012 in Environmental Health, the authors from the University of California, Davis, evaluated exposure to various food contaminants based on dietary information from preschool and school-aged children, as well as parents and older adults. Among the 11 toxins studied was arsenic.

All of the more than 360 children had high levels of arsenic, as well as the pesticides dieldrin, DDE, and dioxins. The authors suggested parents limit their children’s consumptions of animal foods and choose organically produced fruits, vegetables, and dairy products to help reduce exposure to arsenic and other toxins.

The presence of arsenic in apple juice is just one of many ways children and adults can be exposed to arsenic through their food choices. Concerned consumers may want to have their water checked for arsenic content, choose organic foods whenever possible, and keep up to date on tests concerning arsenic levels in food and water.

Consumer Reports. Arsenic in your food
Food and Drug Administration
New York Times. Study finds an increase in arsenic levels in chicken
Vogt R et al. Cancer and non-cancer health effects from food contaminant exposures for children and adults in California: a risk assessment. Environmental Health 2012 Nov 9; 11:83

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