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Are you Unknowingly Swallowing Arsenic in your Food?

By S. Madhusudhan, Founder & Chief Farmer, back2basics

S. Madhusudhan, Founder & Chief Farmer, back2basics

Headquartered in Bengaluru, back2basics proffers the freshest produce possible to the consumers, by delivering on the same day as harvested.

Arsenic content in food items has been a potential threat to human health for quite some time now. Last year, a report tabled by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), calling attention to high arsenic content found in vegetables and rice produced in 12 states of the country, alerted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Confederation of Indian Horticulture and All India Vegetable Growers Association to this ugly truth. The council found a high quantity of arsenic in potato, brinjal, amaranth, radish, lady finger, and cauliflower.  The fear of getting exposed to this harmful chemical led to people veering towards an organic and gluten-free diet. The craze for “organic” food offers the health-conscious generation with elaborate nutritional options to choose from but once again, the foods which you think are making you healthier may still have the possibilities of arsenic content in it.  

So how does arsenic get into the food in any case? Well, this hazardous chemical is found naturally in our environment. It is present in water, soil and air. It might be present in the soil naturally or it could be left behind from the use of arsenic-based pesticides or herbicides. This legacy of contamination can cause problems for food produced, even if it is produced with organic methods that don’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Found in two different forms, inorganic and organic, both forms of arsenic occur in nature wherein the former is the most common and toxic. A persistent exposure to inorganic arsenic has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Meanwhile, the organic arsenic used in pesticides and weed killers may not be as dangerous as the inorganic form, but is deemed poisonous to humans when consumed in high concentration. A long-term intake of arsenic poison can cause various illnesses such as convulsions, mental agitation, encephalopathy, cancer, skin disorders, lack of concentration, insomnia, blood disorders among others. The general public is not aware of the levels of arsenic intake in their diet every day. Hence, they do not tend to pay attention to the harmful effects of arsenic consumption which is a major contributor to slow poisoning in the body.

When it comes to a problem like arsenic contamination in food, there is no quick solution for consumers as they are unable to see, taste or smell arsenic content present in their food, whether organic or inorganic.  Researches abroad have revealed that organic food products containing a supplement known as organic brown rice syrup have a much higher concentration of arsenic than foods without the syrup.  The test was conducted on numerous organic foods, including infant supplements, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice cereals, energy bars, and energy supplements used by athletes that were found to have troublesome levels of arsenic.

Consumers are not questioning the true source of their food. This status quo has prompted many big retailers to exploit this lack of knowledge and encourage people to unknowingly consume poisonous chemicals such as arsenic. In addition to this, let us make a note that this situation is slowly but surely changing, and the truly discerning consumer is becoming more conscious about the kind of food they are consuming. It is ultimately up to our society to encourage organizations that are transparent about their growing methods and are actual producers of healthy, authentic food.

The ubiquitous nature of arsenic may not let one escape it, but we can certainly limit our exposure to the harmful effects of this chemical by simply making way for a diverse and healthy diet that doesn't rely on just a few foods. That way, even if a few foods are high in arsenic, one is lowering the overall exposure. It is challenging to completely cut off foods like rice and rice products, vegetables, beer and wine from your diet, but they can be avoided with their alternatives and a little precautionary measure. Here are a few tips to stay protected from arsenic exposure:

1. Check the package of rice and choose the rice brands that are low in arsenic content
2. Wash your rice grains thoroughly, organic or non-organic, prior to cooking. Rinsing lowers the arsenic content, which is water soluble.
3. Cook rice with large volumes of water and drain it off. This will wash away the arsenic levels by up to 50 percent.
4. Keep changing the grains in your diet with alternatives like quinoa, cous cous, amaranth, corn, buckwheat and millet.
5. For infants, ditch packaged baby food and rice cereals. Instead, introduce them to fruits or vegetables like mashed peas, bananas or squash as the first food, instead of rice cereal. Avoid rice as much as possible. 
6. Avoid apple and grape juice or limit the intake.
7. Instead of brown rice syrup which has been found to be a hidden source of arsenic, use organic cane sugar, maple syrup, or honey. 
8. Keep a check on your local water supply and consider use of a water filtering system for your drinking water.

We all should understand that while organic food is produced under tighter standards than conventional agriculture, it can be tough to ignore the contamination in the environment where the food is cultivated. All said and done, organic agriculture does minimize this environmental harm thanks to its production processes that cull the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, GM ingredients, irradiation or sewage mud. So instead of getting scared of deciding what to eat and what not, one must focus on wholesome foods in sensible combinations instead of just relying on the claims made by the manufacturers on the back of food packages. 

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