Odorless and tasteless, arsenic is a metalloid that is somewhat naturally occurring in drinking water supplies and can cause the thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness in hands and feet, partial paralysis, and blindness (not to mention cancer) if consumed in high, or even moderate, quantities over time. The EPA has set a strict standard for arsenic levels in drinking water, but oddly no arsenic standard exists for food. This is not usually all that much of an issue, as elevated levels of arsenic have not been all that apparent in edible items…at least until now.
Under attack (or at least influenced) by this upswing in arsenic prevalence is factory-farmed chickens. According to a New York Times Op-Ed, arsenic has routinely been fed to conventionally raised poultry (and sometimes hogs) because it reduces infections and makes flesh an appetizing shade of pink. In addition, new scientific evidence has shown that, along with a steady diet of arsenic, poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and a whole slew of other unmentionables (for anyone wondering about the caffeine: chickens are sometimes fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them awake so that they can spend more time eating). As menti0ned above, arsenic is really not a good thing for any living thing, and while there hasn’t been an established cancer or illness link between chickens fed a steady diet of arsenic and those brave souls who eat them, it is probably a very prudent idea to lay off those factory-farmed chickens and go local and organic if you absolutely need to satisfy your chicken craving.
While many vegetarians are likely feeling morally superior and relatively secure with the aforementioned news, I have some not so great news for you. Seems that rice, brown, white, basmati, what have you, is also rich in arsenic as well. Because arsenic is naturally occurring in soil and water, thirsty rice plants just soak up the arsenic, more so than other plants. An NPR report shows that in the United States, in the past, we used arsenic in pesticides – on cotton. Some of those areas are now growing rice, and rice that has been shown to be rich in arsenic. Not enough to kill you, at least immediately, but enough to cause some significant concern. The report seems to suggest that brown rice, because it is not polished like white rice, may contain somewhat elevated amounts of arsenic, and processed rice products like brown rice syrup and rice flour seem to have more arsenic in them than whole grain rice. One thing researchers recommend is that consumers limit their rice intake (not an everyday thing) and “steer away from some of these foods that might have four or five different rice ingredients, like certain energy bars and processed cereals. Oh, and there is no evidence that organic rice contains any less naturally occurring arsenic than conventionally grown rice. Sorry, bummer I know.
So that ultimate comfort dish, chicken and rice (or chicken soup with rice) may not provide so much comfort in the long run. The takeaway from all this is to severely limit (if not completely eliminate) your factory-farmed poultry intake and go organic instead, and when it comes to rice, less is more…healthy.