Is it safe to eat (or give our kids) brown rice and apples? Nutrition Diva offers tips on how to minimize your exposure to dangerous toxins
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, there is a lot of concern these days about high arsenic levels in certain foods. Ironically, the foods at the center of the scare—apple juice and brown rice—are generally thought of as healthy foods. Several of you have written to ask how much of these foods it’s safe for us (or our kids) to consume—or whether we should avoid them altogether.
How Much Arsenic is Too Much?
In larger amounts, of course, arsenic is a rather notorious poison. In fact, slipping a dose of arsenic into someone’s cup of mead or grog was a popular way of offing political rivals—back in the days of mead and grog. These days, we’re not as worried about an accidental or intentional overdose of arsenic. Rather, we worry about chronic exposure to levels that aren’t enough to make you feel sick right away but, over time, can cause serious health problems.
Up until lately, contaminated well water was the primary concern and efforts have focused on rigorous testing of water supplies to ensure that arsenic levels did not exceed safe thresholds. Now that some foods have been found to contain high levels of arsenic, one of the challenges is that we simply don’t know that much about how arsenic in foods might affect people people and what safe thresholds might be. Simply evaluating foods by the standards set for drinking water may either over- or under-estimate the dangers.
The safe threshold for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion. But that is calculated based on how much water you’re likely to drink, day in and day out. It wouldn’t make sense to apply the same threshold to a food that you eat once or twice a week. On the other hand, the safe threshold for water assumes that drinking water is the only significant source of arsenic exposure. If we’re exposed to arsenic from a number of different sources, then we need to take our likely exposure from all sources into account when establishing safe thresholds for each individual source.
Scientists are scrambling to get a handle on all these issues so that they can put new guidelines and/or regulations into place. In the meantime, we’re left to fend for ourselves. Here’s my take on what’s prudent.
What Foods Are Likely to Be High in Arsenic?
Almost all fruits and vegetables, meat, and fish contain trace amounts of arsenic—far too little to be of any concern. In fact, I was interested to learn that arsenic is actually an essential trace element—our bodies need these small amounts of arsenic in order to stay healthy and function properly.
Certain plants—including rice, apples, and grapes—have a particular affinity for arsenic, absorbing and incorporating it more readily into their cells. If these crops are grown in soil or irrigated with water that is rich in arsenic—either because of natural deposits or human activities like farming, tanning, mining, or coal-burning—they may contain significant amounts of arsenic, which can be further concentrated through processing.
Is it Safe to Eat Apples and Brown Rice?
Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think you need to eliminate fresh apples, grapes, or steamed brown rice from your diet. But here are three tips to minimize your risk of excessive arsenic exposure.
Tip #1: Go for Variety
As I talked about in my episode on Benefits of a Varied Diet, choosing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and grains, not only ensures a broader mix of nutrients but it’s also a hedge against over-exposure to undesirable elements, like arsenic. So, enjoy apples and grapes—but don’t forget about citrus, berries, melons, and bananas. If you don’t eat wheat, there are a lot of gluten-free grains to choose from: try amaranth, teff, and quinoa in addition to rice. Likewise, if you avoid dairy, you don’t have don’t rely exclusively on rice alternatives; try hemp, almond, soy, oat, or coconut milk.
See also my nutritional comparison of nondairy milks.
Tip #2: Eat Foods Whole Instead of Processed
It takes 4 or 5 apples to make a single cup of apple juice and a whole boatload of brown rice to make a little bit of brown rice syrup. As a result, while the amount of arsenic in an apple or a serving of brown rice isn’t a problem, the amount in a bottle of apple juice or a tablespoon of brown rice syrup may be enough to cause concern.
Tip #3: Read Ingredient Lists
Ironically, brown rice is used in a lot of highly-processed products aimed at the health-conscious consumer—everything from nondairy milk, yogurt, and cheese, to wheat-free bread, pasta, and cereal, to energy bars and drinks. If you eat a lot of processed foods, especially ones pitched as “health” foods, take a look at the ingredient list—just to make that you’re not eating twelve different things a day that all have rice as the main ingredient. In particular, keep an eye on how much brown rice syrup you’re consuming.
Despite the wholesome sounding name, brown rice syrup is still a concentrated source of sugar and calories. Plus, as it turns out, it can be a very concentrated source of arsenic.
Are Apples and Rice Safe for Children?
I think the place we need to exercise the most caution is with what we’re feeding our kids. Children tend to be more sensitive to chemical exposure because they are still developing and have much smaller bodies. In addition, they often have less varied diets than adults so any given food may represent a fairly large proportion of their diet.
Perhaps the most alarming recent finding was high levels of arsenic in baby formulas sweetened with organic brown rice syrup. Babies usually consume formula as their primary or only food. Until further notice, I recommend that you avoid all baby formulas and foods containing brown rice syrup.
Arsenic in apple juice also affects our kids disproportionately—because children drink 3 times as much apple juice as adults. I’ve been campaigning for years to get parents to stop giving their kids apple juice. It’s a concentrated source of sugar and calories, nutrient-poor, and kids tend to drink it instead of milk, which deprives them of protein and calories. So, if the bad press about arsenic gets parents to lay off the apple juice, I’m not going to be upset.
I think it’s still OK to offer children fresh apples or unsweetened applesauce but, again, as one of a variety of fruits. And it’s fine to give young children rice or rice cereal as part of a varied diet.
Obviously, this is a story that’s still unfolding. For those who want to learn more and stay up-to-date as more information comes to light, there are great resources available through Dartmouth University.
And make sure to sign up for the weekly Nutrition Diva newsletter for up-to-date information on the latest in research and findings about this and many other nutrition topics. It’s free and filled with exclusive content that you won’t find anywhere else!