Arsenic and Food – Anything to Worry About?

Undoubtedly, the media plays a large role in your attitudes and beliefs towards certain topics. A topic of recent media that continues to receive negative attention is arsenic in our food supply. As a result of consumer reports of Dr. Oz’s focus on arsenic in apple juice and rice to activists demanding the Food and Drug Administration to establish food standards for arsenic – of food safety in relation to arsenic has struck fear in the American population. In any fitness plan or routine, nutrition is essential. With arsenic containing foods like rice, does the risk outweigh the benefits? And are you in danger due the arsenic in our food supply? I will give you the answers and what the science says behind the perceived negative effects of arsenic containing foods.

Just what is Arsenic?

Arsenic (As) is an element that is found naturally in the environment that can be found in just about everything including rocks and soil, water, air, in plants and in animals. Arsenic like other elements are divided into two groups. Inorganic and organic. Inorganic compounds are combined with oxygen, iron, chlorine, and sulfur. Whereas organic compounds are carbon containing compounds. Inorganic arsenic can be found in industry, some building products – such as pressure treated woods, and arsenic-contaminated water. According to the American Cancer Society, the inorganic arsenic compounds tend to be more toxic and have been linked to cancer.1 (Keep this in mind as you continue reading) Organic arsenic compounds are much less toxic than inorganic arsenic and are thought not to be linked to cancer.1 Organic forms of arsenic can be found in foods such as almonds and rice. In fact, water provides about 50 percent of your total arsenic intake.2


With such a high intake of arsenic from water, should you stop drinking water, stop bathing in water, or stop washing your dishes with water? Of course not. When arsenic levels are expressed, they are reported in total arsenic. This means that both organic and the inorganic arsenic levels are expressed. This is important to know because knowing the form of arsenic is critical in determining human toxicity. We know that inorganic arsenic is much more toxic – why is this? This is because organic forms of arsenic undergo limited metabolism and therefore excreted more rapidly.3 Whereas inorganic forms tends to be more bioavailable to your body – it is absorbed at higher amounts. So, a food may have high arsenic levels but that does not indicate what is absorbed.

Arsenic containing foods

Now that we know where arsenic comes from and the categories, we can examine common foods associated with arsenic. Arsenic is found in all food groups. Meaning, eliminating any one food group will not address the elimination of arsenic. One of the more common foods associated with arsenic is rice. All plants take up arsenic from the soil, rice takes up arsenic from flooded patties. But the bioavailability differs in rice products. Even though brown rice has the most arsenic when compared to white rice, it is the least bioavailable.5 And despite claims that arsenic pesticides used in cotton fields are the source of arsenic content in American grown rice, there is no available evidence supporting the claim.4  Just how much do we consume of the inorganic arsenic? The total arsenic intake is 20 to 300 micrograms per day, with a contribution of only 10-25 percent coming from inorganic arsenic.6

How does this relate to your fitness goal?

                Rice, both white and brown, is a staple food to any athlete’s nutrition plan. Brown rice is an excellent source of energy, fiber, protein, and vitamins. Not to mention, populations with the highest rice intakes have lower – not higher—rates of cancer and better health outcomes. With a healthy diet also comes the protection from contaminants, like arsenic as well as other naturally occurring toxins. Despite recent activity involving arsenic in the media, the Food and Drug Administration has monitored the arsenic foods and the Environmental Protection Agency has a set standard for your drinking water. If you are still not convinced by the science, I’ll leave you with this quote from David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, and founding Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center.

“The presence of a contaminant in food does not reliably indicate that eating the food is harmful… The health benefits of fish consumption seem to outweigh any harms from the mercury, at least in general. The health benefits of habitual intake of vegetables and fruits clearly outweigh any harms from the As they contain, or trace pesticides residues. Similarly, there is more As in brown rice than white, but the health benefits of eating a whole grain may outweigh that. And in general, although more rice intake seems to mean more As exposure, populations with the highest rice intake actually have lower, not higher, rates of cancer than ours in the U.S”

By Gavin Van De Walle


  1. Arsenic. The American Cancer Society Web site. Updated February 17, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2013.
  2. Marchiset-Ferlay N, et al. Environ Int. 2012;39:150-71; McClintock et al Sci Total

Environ. 2012; 429:76-91.

  1. Sears ME et al. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745
  2.  Organic Arsenicals. United States Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

Updated April 2, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2013.

  1. Hite A. Nutrition. 2013;29:353-4. He et al. J Environ Sci Health B. 2012;47:74-80
  2. XUE et al Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118:345-50