Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The problem of Arsenic in our food seems to be getting worse.

From time to time when there is news of Arsenic in our food, it worries me for some time and then I tend to overlook and ultimately forget about it. But now the latest news is that the levels of Arsenic in food are going up, especially in Rice which is our staple food.
High doses of Arsenic are acutely toxic, causing various adverse symptoms and even death (as we have read in stories and novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and others). Dietary Arsenic is generally present in low amounts and does not cause any immediate symptoms of poisoning. However long-term ingestion of Inorganic Arsenic may cause various health problems and increase the risk of chronic diseases. These include various types of cancer, narrowing or blockage of blood vessels, High blood pressure, Heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. In addition, Arsenic is toxic to nerve cells and may affect brain function thereby cause impairment of concentration, learning and memory.  
Arsenic, the toxic trace element, is denoted by the symbol ‘As’. It is normally found…bound with other elements in chemical compounds – Organic Arsenic is mainly found in plant and animal tissues and the Inorganic Arsenic is found in rocks, soil and dissolved water. The Inorganic Arsenic is more toxic. Both forms are naturally present in environment, but their levels have been increasing due to pollution. Arsenic pollution is mostly due to pesticides, wood preservatives, phosphate fertilizers, industrial waste, mining activities, coal burning and smelting.
Traces of Arsenic are said to be found in nearly all foods and drinks, but usually in small amounts. In contrast, relatively high levels are found in – Contaminated drinking water which has Inorganic Arsenic, Seafood contains significant amounts of Organic Arsenic which is less toxic. Almost all cereals have traces of Arsenic. But it is Rice that has the most.
Arsenic is already available underground - in water, soil and rocks, and due to Arsenic pollution; more Arsenic drains into groundwater, which then becomes highly polluted. From groundwater, arsenic finds its way into wells and bore wells. And from there into irrigation, drinking and cooking water. Rice is particularly susceptible to Arsenic contamination because it is grown in flooded Paddy fields irrigated by Arsenic contaminated irrigation water. The soil absorbs Arsenic and Rice absorbs more Arsenic from water and soil; compared to other common food crops. Using contaminated water for cooking is another concern, because rice grains easily absorb Arsenic from cooking water when it is boiled. All this is a very serious concern for Rice eaters like me.
Until some scientific method is invented to eliminate Arsenic in Rice we have simple age old practices to follow. Rice is always washed few times to clean the grains and it is soaked. This soaking time may have to be increased from minutes to few hours. This opens up the grain and allows some Arsenic to escape. And then the Rice should be washed again. Rice may then be cooked in whichever way you like – by Stovetop absorption method in a Vessel with cover, Pressure Cooker or Electric Rice Cooker or in a Microwave that is by adding Rice to a pre-determined, measured quantity of water, normally around 1:2 depending upon the quality of water.
However considering the fear of Arsenic; the Stovetop pasta method seems to be a better option. And this is the regularly followed procedure in our house: We boil a large quantity of water (say for every part of Rice, around five parts of water) and add the washed and soaked Rice to it and allow boiling, stirring occasionally. As the Rice is getting ready we turn the heat down and allow the water to simmer.  We test the Rice and when it is cooked to our liking, we turn off the heat. Instead of a colander, a jute or cotton cloth with chords as shown in the picture below is tied around the opening of the vessel and the starchy water is strained out at the sink. This practice is to get Rice, old or new or of any type to be cooked to our liking say like jasmine flowers, plumper and floppier! With this process some more Arsenic in the Rice is eliminated. The Arsenic data in figures can be seen in the chart above this article.

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