A Closer Look at Arsenic in Gluten-Free Foods

gluten-free

If you’re avoiding gluten, you’re not alone. According to data from market research company Mintel, about one-third of you are giving gluten-free eating a try. Increased demand has resulted in a larger array and improved selection of gluten-free products. Whether you can’t eat gluten because it makes you sick or you’re avoiding it for other reasons, the gluten-free foods you’re subbing in could be exposing you to elevated levels of arsenic.

So, how did arsenic get into gluten-free foods?

The answer is rice. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you didn’t know this before, rice contains arsenic. It’s not a lot; it’s actually just a tiny, tiny amount. But even at low levels, arsenic in food is a potentially big problem. Not only does rice contain arsenic, but it’s one of the foods with the highest levels of the most concerning type of arsenic: inorganic arsenic. This is especially concerning for people avoiding gluten because gluten-free foods often contain rice, rice flour, or rice syrup.

The EPA has set a safety limit for arsenic in our water supply, and the FDA has proposed an action level for arsenic in apple juice and infant rice cereal, but there is currently no limit to how much arsenic can be in rice or gluten-free foods.

Now, when you hear “arsenic,” you probably think “poison” and at high doses it is poisonous, but that’s not what we worry about for the small amounts that are found in foods like rice. We worry because studies have shown that exposure to low doses of arsenic over long periods of time increases the risk of developing certain cancers and chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. We are also learning from an ongoing study by researchers at Dartmouth who’ve been following children since birth that low-dose exposure to arsenic can affect development and can impact the most basic functions of our cells.

It’s important to realize that no one is adding arsenic to our foods on purpose. It’s not coming off machines in a factory either. Arsenic is naturally found in soil, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers for decades has contributed to these levels. Rice happens to be a plant that takes up arsenic from the soil more readily than many others. How much arsenic ends up in rice depends on the type of rice plant it is, along with other factors such as the way it’s grown. Fortunately, we’ve banned the use of arsenic-containing drugs for chickens, which used to produce arsenic-laden fertilizer. We’ve also banned some of the worst arsenic-based pesticides, but unfortunately, others still remain in use.

On the show, we recently tested gluten-free foods from the most popular brands to see how much inorganic arsenic they contained. Our sample was small and not representative of the entire market, but here is what we found in the rice-containing foods we tested:

  • Gluten-Free Brownie Mix: 0.3 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Penne: 0.4 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Pasta: 0.7 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Pizza Crust: 0.7 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Whole Grain Bread: 1.2 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Cake Mix: 1.3 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Cereal: 2.3 micrograms/serving
  • Gluten-Free Mac and Cheese: 4.2 micrograms/serving

As you can see, everything we tested contained detectable levels of inorganic arsenic. Some items had relatively high amounts while others had relatively low levels. Since there are no standards for these foods, it’s hard to explain what “high” or “low” actually means, but we can look at the amounts of arsenic considered dangerous in water or the proposed action level for arsenic in apple juice as a benchmark.

The EPA’s water standard for arsenic is 10 parts per billion, and the FDA has proposed that we allow no more arsenic in our apple juice than we do in our water. This is actually what the Dr. Oz show proposed back in 2011 when we covered the issue of arsenic in juice.) One important thing to know is that the limits are not based purely on safety; they are also based on what’s practical. When the EPA sets limits for water, it does a cost-benefit analysis and arrives at a number that is protective, but also affordable. So, most experts agree that when we’re looking at what we consume we should shoot for even lower levels.

So if we take one 8 oz. serving of apple juice that contains the maximum amount of allowable inorganic arsenic under the proposed rule (10 ppb) and we do a little math, we find that it should have no more than 2.3 micrograms in it. Based on that number we can see that some of the products we tested were above the proposed level for apple juice.

Now, remember that when it comes to health concerns, we are worried about exposure to arsenic over a long period of time. So, if you were to eat any of these foods once in a while it wouldn’t be a big issue, but if you are on a gluten-free diet, you are probably eating lots of these foods day in and day out. That’s when the amount of arsenic in these foods can make a difference.

The best thing you can do is diversify your diet. You don’t have to avoid rice or rice-containing foods altogether, just don’t make rice the only grain you eat. In a test conducted by Consumer Reports, they found that other gluten-free grains tend to have lower levels of arsenic than rice. These include amaranth, buckwheat, millet, polenta, and quinoa. A lot of gluten-free products are being made with these alternative grains. Beans are also a good gluten-free, non-grain ingredient that can be used to make pasta and other dishes.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t have to worry about this problem. The rice industry is studying how to reduce the amount of arsenic in this grain, but we need limits to guide them. The FDA has taken important steps forward with its proposed action levels for infant rice cereal and apple juice, but we still need limits for arsenic in rice and rice-containing foods like the ones we tested.