If You're Worried About Eating High-Arsenic Foods, Read These Reassuring Tips From a Nutritionist

Don’t let a fear of this toxin ruin your favorite recipe.

Root vegetables: Beats, Carrots, Potatoes

Photo by Cathy Scola/Getty Images

You know that eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables everyday is a key part of maintaining a balanced diet and overall healthy lifestyle. Beyond nourishing your body with a wealth of vitamins and minerals, diversifying your fruit and veggie intake can also help keep arsenic consumption at bay. 

What is arsenic, and what does it have to do with your food?

What consumption, you ask? Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is “widely distributed throughout the environment,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO), found in rocks, soil, air, and water. Arsenic is “highly toxic in its inorganic form,” WHO explains. Drinking contaminated groundwater or eating foods exposed to contaminated water (during irrigation or processing/manufacturing) are the primary ways humans can be exposed to inorganic arsenic. Certain industrial processes and substances like pesticides, animal feed, and mining can further release arsenic into the environment, causing arsenic levels to be higher in certain parts of the country. Long-term exposure to arsenic in foods can lead to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers later in life, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA regulates arsenic in bottled water, but does not currently have regulatory limits on potential arsenic in other foods and beverages. (Private well water is not routinely tested by the government, so check out the Environmental Protection Agency's private drinking water well information for your state here.) Rice, which tends to absorb arsenic more easily than other crops, as well as juices such as apple and grape juice, can be some of the biggest offenders, so the FDA has published industry guidance on arsenic levels in infant rice cereal and apple juice.  

Though it sounds scary, for the most part, this is not something you need to stress out about. “Adverse health effects from arsenic exposure generally require levels of arsenic not typically found in food,” the FDA says. Thankfully, if you are worried or have questions, there are several easy ways to be proactive and limit arsenic in take on your own.

How to Limit Arsenic Food Exposure

Switch up your grain of choice.

Abigail Rapaport, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in New York City, recommends varying the types of grains you eat. Though white rice has less fiber and fewer vitamins than brown rice overall, it does have about 50 percent less arsenic—so it never hurts to alternate between types of rice. Don’t forget to incorporate other healthy and hearty grains: millet, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, oats, farro, barley, or flax are all great options. 

Rinse your rice.

Thoroughly rinsing rice before cooking not only de-starches, washes away dirt, and plumps up each little grain, it’s also a simple way to reduce the arsenic content. Place your rice in a sieve and run it under cool, clean water for several minutes, using your fingers to toss and separate the grains, until the water runs clear under the sieve. You can also place the rice in a bowl and cover it with water, using your hands to swirl it around. Dump that water, then repeat with another round of water until it’s close to clear.

Limit fruit juice and go for whole fruits. 

Rapaport suggests prioritizing eating whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices as often as you can. You’ll get more of the fiber and vitamins that way too.

Wash and peel those root vegetables.

Plants absorb arsenic from the soil in varying amounts. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes mostly store arsenic in their skins, so by washing and peeling these vegetables, you can get rid of most of the arsenic. And you’re probably already doing this when preparing these types of ingredients anyway, so keep it up. 

Eat lots of fruiting crops. 

Leafy vegetables like lettuce and kale tend to store more arsenic in their leaves, so always rinse your greens well too. In addition, Rapaport recommends mixing it up with fruiting crops—plants whose fruits you eat rather than their leaves or roots—like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. These types of produce absorb little arsenic in the parts that you eat. Bottom line: No matter what type of fruits or veggies you’re using, always wash and scrub it first.

Check arsenic levels in your area. 

Ultimately, a person’s arsenic exposure depends on where they live, what they eat, and where their food and water comes from, explains Monica Ramirez-Andreotta, PhD, associate professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona and director of Gardenroots, an organization that teaches citizens about the health of their land and plants. 

“If you are going to be growing your own food, you have to have a good understanding of your land,” Ramirez-Andreotta says. She recommends researching the arsenic levels in your area by purchasing a kit to test the soil. When gardening, you can limit exposure by designating certain clothes and shoes for gardening only, cleaning up before going inside your home, and avoiding working in the garden on windy days. 

Expand your produce sources.

And while it’s great to grow your own vegetables, eating a varied assortment of produce from your own garden, the grocery store, and the farmers’ market can help reduce potential exposure, Ramirez-Andreotta adds.

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