It’s hard to dispute that we are in a period of transition. Social upheaval, political uncertainty, and the drama of environmental change create screaming headlines to set us sometimes perilously off balance and unsure how to get through our days.
And at times of stress, it’s natural to turn to our creature comforts for a modicum of reassurance, one of our favorites being food.
Admit it – who hasn’t felt the urge to reach for that extra donut after perusing the morning news? And what about that handful of cookies as a reward for making it through to the afternoon? Or perhaps you set your sights on more healthy snacks – fruit or nuts to help you manage the day. And natural choices – fruits, nuts, seeds, and the like – must be good for us, right?
In short, myriad examples in recorded history show us that not everything in the natural world is necessarily beneficial to human health.
Most diets take the concept of ‘natural food’ as a fundamental yardstick against which to measure everything. From paleo to raw to ketogenic to vegan, most diets will emphasize the health benefits of ‘natural’ foods such as whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, and fruits. In fact, even the consumables that are anything but ‘healthy’ – we’re looking at you, drive-thru burger with extra-large fries on the side – are often positioned on the spectrum of ‘natural’ ingredients. Idaho potatoes! Grass-fed beef! But what we conveniently forget is that the natural world also includes substances such as belladonna, otherwise known prosaically as ‘witches berry,’ ‘sorcerer’s cherry,’ and ‘deadly nightshade.’ This toxin, found in every part of the belladonna plant, contains atropine which can induce an excessive stimulation of the heart, hallucinations, delirium, coma, and convulsions. Even brushing against the leaves of the plant can result in painful pustules and consuming a mere two berries can kill. Legend has it that Scottish king, Macbeth, used the substance to murderous effect in 1040 to poison Danes invading Scotland. Further back in time, hired killer Locusta is said to have been commissioned by the ‘pretender to the throne’ Agrippina the Younger to displace Claudius as the head of the Roman Empire.(1) In short, myriad examples in recorded history show us that not everything in the natural world is necessarily beneficial to human health.
And that, unfortunately, includes a staple food common to many world cuisines: rice.
First hitting the headlines in 2016, the issue of arsenic contamination in rice is not actually a new problem.
All crops absorb compounds from the air, water, and soil but rice is especially good at siphoning up arsenic and storing it in its grains. In the U.S., although a natural arsenic level exists, it is increased in some geographical areas due to the re-use of fields that formerly grew cotton. According to an article in Wired.com, the early twentieth century saw growers liberally applying arsenic-based compounds such as lead arsenate and calcium arsenate to their cotton fields and even to their fruit orchards.(2) In fact, in 1935, an FDA-sponsored radio program recast the children’s rhyme ‘A is for Apple’ to read ‘A is for Arsenate/Lead if you please/Protector of Apples/Against Archenemies.’ OK, so from a poetic perspective it doesn’t quite scan, but what it lacks in balladry it makes up for in enthusiasm. And it illustrates our point. By 1980, the use of these arsenic-based products was banned but the element persists in the soil, slowly but surely poisoning our food. But what is arsenic and why is it considered so dangerous?
Relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, arsenic is a metalloid element that is present in both organic (indicating that it is bonded with carbon) and inorganic forms, the totality of which is dubbed ‘total arsenic.’
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the variety most closely linked with adverse health effects is the latter.(3) Inorganic arsenic is commonly to be found in the air, water, and soil and results both from human activity such as mining and smelting of ore and from seismic activities such as volcanic eruptions or the natural erosion of rock. Now used in pressure-treated timber and some common pesticides, arsenic was long considered the poison of choice for murderous schemers in the Middle Ages. At a time of unchecked cholera transmission, arsenic poisoning effectively mimicked cholera’s symptoms, rendering victims confused and disorientated, suffering vomiting and diarrhea before they eventually succumbed to death. Until nineteenth-century science discovered how to identify its effects, it was widely considered the perfect toxin – untraceable and, insofar as it affected every cell in the body, deadly efficient.
And although not acutely toxic in low levels, arsenic contamination in food is now carefully monitored.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the safe limit for arsenic consumption is a low 100 parts per billion, although the agency reduced that limit to just 10 ppb for drinking water.(4) In China, a country known for its love affair with the nutty grain, the governmental safe limit for arsenic in rice was set at 150ppb which is, as Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org explains, stricter than the 200ppb limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO).(5) And these guidelines are important to see in context. In 2016, the FDA released data pertaining to an analysis of arsenic in common foods, testing a total of 76 rice-based cereals and 36 multigrain/rice-free cereals for infants and toddlers. As an average reading, the rice cereals had a 103 ppb arsenic contamination whereas their non-rice counterparts were found to be well below the 100ppb threshold.
So the arsenic content in the analyzed foods was roughly at the ‘safe’ limit. But let’s not forget that these edibles are intended for infants whose still developing bodies and brains have an increased vulnerability to toxins. An FDA risk assessment concluded that there was ‘an association between adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurological effects in early life with inorganic arsenic exposure [and that] exposure in infants and pregnant women can result in a child’s decreased performance on certain developmental tests that measure learning.’(6)
And there’s also the risk of cancer.
According to an FDA report issued in 2015 the ‘lung cancer and bladder cancer risk […] attributable to lifetime exposure to all rice and rice products is a small portion of all cases of these cancers, at 39 cases per million people over a lifetime.’(7) Perhaps this is a small subset of the cancer diagnoses but the picture becomes darker when the results of a study by Bannergee et al are added to the mix. In a paper published by in the International Journal of Scientific Reports, an online repository curated by Nature, Bannerjee and his team conducted an analysis of the genetic damage caused by daily rice consumption and found that for the ‘study population consuming around 500g of cooked rice per day, that a cooked rice arsenic content above 200 µg/kg is – on its own – sufficient to give rise to significant amounts of genetic damage [associated with increased cancer risks], even when there is little exposure through drinking water.’(8) Unsettlingly, the U.S. limits on allowable contamination rank among the highest in the rice-eating world, with ‘over 50% of that rice in USA and France estimated to have arsenic concentrations exceeding 200 µg/kg.’(9)
So why are the limits currently set so high? Again let’s turn to Dr. Greger for a potential answer: ‘From the what-if calculations, rice would need to be reduced to less than 75ppb to have a significant effect on the cancer risk, and this would wipe out the U.S. rice market [with the] availability in the marketplace [decreasing] by 4% to 93% depending on the type of rice.’(10) Forcing the limit down to a comparatively safer 75ppb would also ‘encourage cultivation of rice strains that do not incorporate as much arsenic and reduce the use of arsenic-contaminated land for agriculture.’(11) In other words, reducing the permissible arsenic contamination in staple foods such as rice would force changes that would adversely affect the industry and the economy. And so the limit remains in force.
So if protecting ourselves against these kinds of cancers means cutting back on the fried rice for dinner, perhaps it’s safer to just eat fruit. What could be more natural? Not so fast – it all depends on which fruit we’re reaching for. Let’s look, for instance, at everyone’s summer favorite, the apricot.
In 1979 iconic movie star and all-round rebel Steve McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Presenting with a simple cough, this cancer of the lining of the lungs was quickly deemed terminal and, in spite of intense radiation therapy and chemotherapy, McQueen’s health began to deteriorate. In 1980, motivated to try any possible path to treatment, McQueen traveled to a clinic in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, to undergo a regimen under the care of Dr. William D. Kelley, a dentist whose license in the state of Texas had been revoked. Kelley devised a treatment plan that included infusions of pancreatic enzymes, injections of bovine and ovine fetal material, more than fifty different vitamins and minerals, and coffee enemas. The careplan also included psychotherapy, massage, prayer, and laetrile, a substance derived from apricot pits. Which, in terms of natural toxins found in foods is where the story gets interesting. Laetrile is the product name for laevo-mandelonitrile-beta-glucuronoside, a synthetic compound related to amygdalin which is commonly found in apricot stones, apples, bitter almonds, and stone fruit like plums. Amygdalin is a cyanogenic glycoside derived from phenylalanine and is hydrolyzed in the intestine to produce gentiobiose, a substance that further breaks down into benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. This latter compound, when chewed and ingested in sufficient quantities, can cause cyanide poisoning. And the lethal dose of cyanide is 0.5mg to 3.0mg per kilo of body weight – or 1 to 2 kernels per adult per day.
As far back as 1892, amygdalin had been tested by researchers in Germany as a potential cure for cancer as, in the presence of some enzymes, it breaks down in part into the extremely poisonous hydrogen cyanide which was thought to destroy cancerous cells. German tests eventually declared the compound to be ineffective and overly toxic but, fast forward to the early 20th century, and amygdalin became a source of interest once again. Father-son duo Ernst T. Krebs Sr. and Jr. established the Balsamea Company in San Francisco, CA, which aimed to market a handful of controversial products to cure everything from cancer to whooping cough. During the flu pandemic of 1918, Krebs Sr had cut his teeth in the ‘alternative treatment’ market by producing Syrup Leptinol, a compound based on parsley which he believed to be effective against the disease. Two decades later, Mutagen, an enzymatic cure for cancer, hit the shelves at Balsamea, and later pangamic acid (also termed Vitamin B15) was similarly touted as a treatment for heart disease and cancer. In each case, the FDA did not look favorably on the work of the Krebs family, seizing various supplies during repeated investigations for fraud.
Undaunted however, Krebs Jr. persisted in his father’s research, adamant that his purified version of the amydalin, which he termed ‘laetrile’, would indeed be the disruptive formulation that could cure cancer.
The rationale for his assertion was that where trophoblasts, placental cells, are not destroyed by chymotrypsin, a digestive enzyme produced by the pancreas, cancer will follow. However, where amygdalin – or, in Krebs’ case, laetrile – is consumed, cyanide is released which targets the cancerous cells and kills them. When enforcement agencies mounted a pushback on Krebs’ claims, he rebranded his discovery as a supplement – ‘Vitamin B17’ – a deficit of which would allegedly lead to an increased cancer risk. However, in controlled clinical analysis at the Los Angeles County Hospital, laetrile was offered to 44 cancer patients of whom 19 died within two years. Furthermore, no evidence was noted of beneficial effects on the other study participants.(12) In 1963, the Cancer Advisory Council concluded that of more than 100 case studies involving the use of laetrile the drug was of ‘no value in the diagnosis, treatment, alleviation or cure of cancer’ and called for an all-out ban on the product which became law in the state of California that same year.(13)
Despite vociferous support of laetrile from some areas and high-profile cases such as that of Steve McQueen, the product is no longer available within the U.S.
Like McQueen, patients reaching the end of conventional treatment will always grasp at any hope and a trade continues in Mexican clinics where the treatment is marketed as ‘amygdalin’ or ‘Vitamin B17,’ a ‘vitamin’ that has no official pharmacopoeia recognition. So given that within the U.S. the handful of physicians convicted of supplying laetrile have found themselves stripped of medical licenses, facing fines, injunctions, and jail time, have we seen the end of laetrile/amygdalin?
No, not so fast. Although laetrile is a synthetic version of amygdalin, the natural version is bioavailable in stone fruit pits, which are often marketed as a healthy snack food. With a nutrient profile similar to nuts (rich in healthy fats, fiber and iron), the kernels are sold both online and in health food outlets to eat raw or for use as a baking supplement. And the recommended daily intake is all over the spectrum: one online source of apricot kernels recommended eating one seed per 10lbs of body weight.(14) Given that for a 150lb man this would equate to a daily recommended intake of 15 kernels – 13 more than the FDA limit, this generosity seems spectacularly ill-advised. So, in the face of a health trend that elevates these products as nutritionally beneficial, regulation is beginning to ramp up. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a recall was issued for organic apricot kernels by Nua Naturals when the product packaging recommended a daily intake of 3 to 5 kernels per day – more than twice the limit generally recognized as safe.(15)
Meanwhile in Malta, an alert and recall was issued by the Directorate for Environmental Health when elevated amounts of cyanide were found in processed apricot kernels stemming from Pakistan.(16)
And even this month, as reported in FoodQualityNews.com, an online repository of articles related to food safety and quality control, apricot kernels from multiple source countries with high levels of cyanide were recalled despite protests from purveyor EgeSun.(17)
So, as fans of rice and fruit, where does this leave us? Armed with the facts, perhaps we are now in a position to make better choices about the natural foods we consume. Although steering clear of amygdalin/laetrile/cyanide is as simple as not ingesting apricot kernels, the question of contaminated grain does remain vexing. Inherently, rice need not contain elevated levels of arsenic – our ill-considered re-use of contaminated, unremediated land is the vector by which the problem is introduced. And the food industry’s drive to maximize profits by cultivating victuals on toxic land combined with our laissez faire attitude and demand for cheap food have enabled the creation of a silent monster. One which is slowly but surely poisoning us even as we strive to consume what we fully believe to be a healthy diet. It may be time for change.
What do you think? Are you a frequent consumer of rice or rice products? Do you feed rice-based products to your infants? We’d love to know your thoughts.