Arsenic in Food: An Insight, History, and Health Risks

From a periodic table’s perspective, arsenic is actually a metalloid that occurs in many minerals. It is used as a doping agent in semiconductors and can be used to make glass and preserve wood. 

Pure arsenic is rare. It usually combines with other elements to form compounds. There are mainly two types of Arsenic compounds: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is found mainly in sea creatures like fish and shellfish whereas inorganic arsenic is found in soil and groundwater that occurs naturally in minerals or as a result of mining and industrial usage. 

Differentiating Organic and Inorganic Arsenic

Organic arsenic in its scientific essence refers to its molecular attachment to carbon atoms, hence, making it “organic”. The arsenic atom is attached to a carbon atom and could make combinations such as ribose, a harmless sugar molecule. Other common organic arsenic compounds include Arsenobetaine which is naturally found in fish. 

People's main source of organic arsenic intake is seafood such as Shellfish, crustaceans, and seaweed. They are known to have naturally high organic arsenic levels.

Inorganic arsenic, on the other hand, does not contain carbon and contains oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. Common inorganic arsenic compounds include arsenic trioxide, arsenic pentoxide, lead arsenate, and calcium arsenate which are all toxic to humans. Arsenic trioxide, for example, has a history of its usage as a lethal poison. Today, some of these compounds are found in water, soils, and rice. 

It is important to distinguish between the forms of arsenic when determining the arsenic content in foods or beverages. Many studies fail to distinguish between the toxic one from the harmless one because they are looking for “total arsenic count” in their samples. It can certainly be misleading if the results show high counts of total arsenic when in reality, they’re only high in organic arsenic and not in inorganic ones. 

Is Inorganic Arsenic Dangerous to Humans?

While organic arsenic compounds found in seafood are not known to be toxic to humans, inorganic arsenic compounds are known to be poisonous and cancer-causing chemicals. Arsenic trioxide and arsenic sulfide are common examples of inorganic arsenic compounds poisonous to our health. 

Humans can be exposed to inorganic arsenic when it gets into food, water, and air. Arsenic exists in soil and water. Some of it can make its way to drinking water and food since rice, apples, and other fruits, vegetables, and grains are grown in the soil. Rice can take up arsenic from the soil more readily than others. Even trace amounts that we consume from foods that have been exposed to inorganic arsenic can be dangerous and sometimes fatal. The population that is at high risk of arsenic poisoning are infants, toddlers, and children. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates how much chemicals are allowed in food and other consumables. The EPA allows 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic in drinking water. To easily comprehend, one ppb is equivalent to a sugar cube in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If more arsenic than 10 ppb is found in water, special water treatment methods are used to take it out. 

Another federal agency called the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) is responsible for checking the arsenic levels in food. When the FDA studied 94 samples of arsenic in apple juice, 95% of them showed to have less than 10 ppb of total arsenic. The arsenic levels in rice were also shown to have less than 10 ppb of total arsenic.

So when did the fear of arsenic poisoning begin? 

History of Arsenic Poisoning and its Presence in Food 

Poisoning with arsenic dates back to the 18th century when it was commonly used as rat poison. Even royal figures such as kings and queens back in those times were familiar with arsenic as they feared getting poisoned by their enemies. 

More recently, the effects of low doses of arsenic in food became apparent in the 1980s. Several countries including the United States have had cases of high levels of Arsenic in drinking water. Bangladesh in particular is known to have an exceedingly high population that suffers from arsenic overexposure. 

According to Human Rights Watch, 20 million people are drinking arsenic-laced water in rural Bangladesh. According to one study, 43,000 people die each year in Bangladesh from arsenic-related illnesses. Numerous reports showed cases of arsenic exposure that led to lung and heart diseases, and eventually cancer. 

In the United States, there were 969 cases of arsenic exposure reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in 2005. 76% of the cases involved adults ages 19 years or older, while the rest involved children less than 6 years old. 

Furthermore, in 2019, the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy conducted an investigation of seven of the largest manufacturers of baby food in the United States. The committee requested internal documents and test results from Nurture Inc, Walmart, Sprout Foods, and Gerber among others. The findings showed that there was a presence of Arsenic in baby foods made by ALL responding companies. 

Here is the summary of the investigations: 

  1. Nurture Inc.: Over 25% of their products tested before sale contained over 100ppb inorganic arsenic. 
  2. Gerber Inc.: 67 batches of rice flour tested over 90 ppb of inorganic arsenic. 
  3. Hain Inc.: Hain’s baby food products contained as much as 129 ppb of inorganic arsenic. 
  4. Beech-Nut: The company used ingredients and additives that tested over 300 ppb of arsenic. 

Besides arsenic, other toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury were also found in these companies' food products. The subcommittee reported that the toxic chemicals found in the food products could potentially endanger infants’ neurological development, and long-term brain function, and permanently decrease their IQs. 

Food That Potentially Contains Inorganic Arsenic 

1.   Rice

Depending on where your rice is from, what type it is, or how you cook it, it may have elevated levels of heavy metal arsenic. Arsenic and heavy metals can be found naturally in the ground, but certain areas are more affected by pollution and modern farming.

Rice is grown in water-saturated soil called rice paddies which absorbs upto 10% more heavy metals such as arsenic than any other grains. A common misconception people believe is that replacing white rice with brown rice or other organic rice is healthier and it might contain less arsenic. The truth is that brown rice and organic rice absorb even more arsenic because of their higher fiber content and structure. 

Choosing the right type of rice that contains low and acceptable quantities of toxic metals is extremely important. This could mean picking out superior rice products manufactured in areas with less pollution. For example, California rice products might be Superior to rice made in Texas because of better farming conditions and less pollution. Rinsing rice about two to three times is also another tip that can eliminate up to 40% of arsenic compounds.  

2.   Apple Juice

In 2011, Dr. Oz exposed companies that manufactured apple juice for finding dangerous levels of toxins such as inorganic arsenic. After hearing the news, American households with children were shocked, angered, and questioned the food and beverage industry. Apple juice was and still is a huge part of school beverages for children in the United States. 

The flaw that was recognized nationally was that instead of testing for the toxic inorganic arsenic, the FDA tested for total arsenic, hence, failing to differentiate the two. This resulted in every other school in America pulling out apple juice from their cafeteria. 

Dr. Oz was right because the FDA released a report several months later claiming that their data matched that of the TV personality.

3.   Protein Powder

Clean Label Project is an organization that uses data and science to reveal the true contents of America’s best-selling consumer products. In the past, they’ve tested baby food, formulas, and pet foods. One of their projects also tested over 137 top-selling protein powders and the results showed the presence of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. 

Vega’s plant-based protein & greens product, which was ranked in the top two by a dozen interviewees, was among the worst for arsenic, lead, and cadmium contents. 

Health Risks & Consequences

Symptoms of arsenic exposure can vary depending on how it gets into your body, the amount you’re exposed to, and how long you’re exposed to it. Breathing in high levels of arsenic can cause a sore throat and irritation of the lungs. Repeated exposure to arsenic over time can damage many organs, including the kidneys, stomach, and liver that can lead to cancer.  Swallowing or breathing in a lot of arsenic may even cause death. 

In addition to increasing the risk of birth defects in developing fetuses, low levels of arsenic can cause abnormal heart rhythm, blood vessel damage, decreased red and white cell production, impaired nerve function, nausea, red or swollen skin, skin warts, and corns, and vomiting.

Here are some of the acute and chronic effects of frequent arsenic exposure:  

  • Heart Disease 
  • Abdominal Pain 
  • Swollen Skin
  • Impaired Nerve and Brain Functions
  • Diarrhea 
  • Vomiting
  • Birth Defects
  • Kidney and Liver Damage
  • Cancer


After establishing the dangers of arsenic exposure to the human body, it is important that we acknowledge the preventative measures to avoid high levels of exposure. First, knowing that there are two types of arsenic is vital when it comes to differentiating the toxic kind from the harmless kind. Organic arsenic is everywhere: in the air, water, and foods we eat. It is harmless to our bodies and is naturally found in seafood. 

Inorganic arsenic, on the other side, is dangerous and can even be fatal to humans. They are released into the environment from industrial sources, pollution, and modern farming practices. Inorganic arsenic has been found in infant foods, rice, apple juice, and even protein powders. 

Certain preventative measures can be taken to avoid the possibility of getting exposed to arsenic. For example, choosing the right type of products and doing your own research can go a long way. Substituting white and brown rice for wild rice, or other rice products that were cultivated in pollution-free areas and rinsing the rice more than twice are some of the ways to lower your risk of exposing yourself to inorganic arsenic. 

Of course, not every rice, apple juice, and protein powder brand is going to contain high levels of dangerous toxins like arsenic and be harmful to the body. This article aims to provide an understanding of what arsenic is, the history of its exposure, how it has globally affected consumers, and most importantly, how one should be aware of the things that are going into the body.