Inorganic arsenic is dangerous stuff. It is naturally occuring and its levels have been increased due to its release into the environment through the use of pesticides and poultry fertilizer. (Chickens can be fed arsenic.) Therefore, it’s in soil and water. Arsenic dissolves easily in water. So drinking water has long been monitored as a source of exposure to arsenic. Because rice is grown in paddies, which are flooded with water, it can be exposed to higher amounts of arsenic than plants grown in drier soils. Fruit-bearing plants also tend to absorb arsenic more readily than many other plants. So high levels of arsenic have been found in rice, apples and grapes as well as brussel sprouts and dark-meat fish. Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system. The good news is that there are steps that consumers can take to reduce their exposure to inorganic arsenic.
The problem, and it is a recognized problem, is that there is no federal food standards for arsenic levels. Since 2012, Consumer Reports has been calling on the FDA to set one. The FDA has begun a process of monitoring arsenic levels in rice and fruit juices but it will be a lengthy, contentious problem that could be derailed by agribusiness politics. The problem received even more attention in a recently filed lawsuit brought against a number of California wineries, whose wines tested relatively high in arsenic. Until the FDA establishes guidelines for safe arsenic levels in these foods, there will be no “definitive” standards for what is safe….and unsafe….rice, fruit juice, wine, fish and other foods.
To its credit, the rice industry has taken some action to reduce arsenic levels and address the concerns of consumer, health and government agencies. Some growers,like Lundberg, have addressed the issue directly and responsibly. Some, not as much. Which leads us to the question of the wine industry’s response to the allegation that some California wines contain unsafe amounts of inorganic arsenic. It’s response has not been thoughtful.
According to Wine Spectator (a reputable industry magazine) representatives of some California wineries named in the complaint that they had been blindsided by the complaint. A Denver-based lab had tested more than 1,300 bottles of wine and found inorganic arsenic in 83 brands of various types and vintages, including Franzia, Sutter Home, Concannon, Wine Cube, Beringer, Flipflop, Fetzer, Korbel, Almaden, Trapiche, Cupcake, Smoking Loon and Charles Shaw. CBS News reported that it had those results checked by a University of California-Berkeley epidemiologist, Allan Smith, who confirmed some of the levels found by the Denver lab. Smith said that 50 ppb of arsenic, the highest level found in one of the bottles tested, can be deadly over time.
However, this isn’t an entirely new issue. The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that regulates wine, beer and spirits, monitors wines for compounds, including arsenic, as part of its testing program. While there are no established limits in the U.S., several countries, including the European Union, have established limits of 100 parts per billion or higher for wine. California wine exports are tested by these governments and are below the established limits. So the winemakers named in the lawsuit responded in comments reported by Wine Spectator:
“The quality of our products and the health and safety of our consumers is our first priority. Since it is a matter of pending litigation, we can’t comment on the lawsuit,” said Nora Feely, public relations director for Trinchero. “Trinchero has always employed sustainability practices and quality testing and assurance across the company in our vineyard, winemaking, and production practices.”
“Treasury Wine Estates is confident that its products are fully compliant with all relevant federal and state guidelines,” said Nicole Carter, vice president of public relations, the Americas. “[TWE] remains confident that our wines are not only safe but enjoyable to drink.”
“Fetzer Vineyards does not add arsenic in the making of our wines. We produce all of our wines in a responsible manner and adhere to all state and federal regulations,” said Holly Killion, compliance director for Fetzer Vineyards.
These responses are evasive. No one has suggested that arsenic is added to wine. There are no useful federal or state guidelines and lawsuits should not cause the food industry to refuse to comment on the more general question of whether arsenic levels should be addressed. Perhaps they should have read Lundberg Farms’ response to the rice issue.
As Wine Spectator notes, the Institute of Medicine, the health branch of the National Academy of Sciences, has issued dietary recommendations that suggest a minimum consumption of 3 liters of water per day, for a man. The wine that tested at the highest level at the lab in the suit showed arsenic levels of 50 ppb. The wine growers spokesman pointed out that a man would have to drink four 5-ounce glasses to match the amount of arsenic in 3 liters of water with 10 ppb. To reach that level drinking the brands that tested at lower levels of arsenic, a man would have to empty multiple bottles of wine each day. But Prof. Roger Boulton of the University of California at Davis, is quoted in that article as stating: “We do not have reliable data for winegrape juices, water sources or winemaking additives to understand where the higher-than-average levels are coming from.” That is the problem.
In fact, scientists and regulators simply don’t currently know the health effects of arsenic in rice, fruit juice and wine. However, looking at intake rates based on amounts and frequency, not just concentrations, is certainly justified and recommended.
WHAT TO DO?
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute told Yahoo Health that, “Arsenic has been found to be a toxic and carcinogenic substance. Of course the amount matters, but until we have more research, limiting rice intake may be an easy thing to do for the majority of the population.”
Consumer Reports found in 2014 tests that the inorganic arsenic content of rice varies greatly depending on the type of rice and where it was grown. White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. on average has half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice. Based on its data, CR calculated that consumers could have about twice as many weekly servings as we previously recommended if that was the only rice or rice product someone ate. For adults, that adds up to 4½ servings per week; children could have 2¾ servings. All types of rice (except sushi and quick cooking) with a label indicating that it’s from Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas or just from the U.S. had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in our tests. For instance, white rices from California have 38 percent less inorganic arsenic than white rices from other parts of the country. Because arsenic collects in the rice germ, brown rice has 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type. Brown has more nutrients, though, so you shouldn’t switch entirely to white. Brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan is the best choice; it has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices. (by the way, rice that’s grown organically takes up arsenic the same way conventional rice does, so don’t rely on organic to have less arsenic.)
The FDA tells consumers that while rice has not been proven to be dangerous, consumers should consider a diverse set of grains including ones that don’t absorb arsenic as readily as rice. For example, the gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta or grits had negligible levels of inorganic arsenic. Bulgur, barley, and farro, which contain gluten, also have very little arsenic. Quinoa (also gluten-free) were also generally found to be lower in arsenic than rice.
The FDA is joined by a number of other reputable sites in recommending that consumers eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of grains for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one particular food. Published studies and ongoing FDA research indicate that cooking rice in excess volumes of water, five to six times that of the rice, and draining the excess water, can reduce up to roughly half of the arsenic content.
As for wine intake, the above-mentioned lawsuit found that the 83 bottles of wine cited in a lawsuit this week as having dangerously high levels of arsenic came from 28 California wineries and were bottled under 31 different brand labels. Researchers at the University of Washington went through 65 different wines from four states — California, Washington, New York and Oregon — and found that 98 percent of the wines tested contained arsenic levels between 10 and 76 parts per billion, with an average of 24 parts per billion. To put that into perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that 10 parts per billion is the standard for drinking water.
The most came in wines from Washington state, with an average of 28 parts per billion, with the lowest in Oregon wines at 13. However, unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet
Most of the wines identified as having high arsenic levels were under $10 per bottle; many of them were in the $5 range. However, we have list a number of readily available wines that did not test high for arsenic and are excellent value wines. The labels and the types of wine cited in the complaint are:
— Acronym (GR8RW Red Blend).
— Almaden (Heritage White Zinfandel, Heritage Moscato, Heritage Chardonnay, Mountain Burgundy, Mountain Rhine, Mountain Chablis).
— Arrow Creek (Coastal Series Cabernet Sauvignon).
— Bandit (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon).
— Bay Bridge (Chardonnay).
— Beringer (White Merlot, White Zinfandel, Red Moscato, Refreshingly Sweet Moscato).
— Charles Shaw (White Zinfandel).
— Colores Del Sol (Malbec).
— Glen Ellen by Concannon (Glen Ellen Reserve Pinot Grigio, Glen Ellen Reserve Merlot).
— Concannon (Selected Vineyards Pinot Noir).
— Cook’s (Spumante).
— Corbett Canyon (Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon).
— Cupcake (Malbec).
— Fetzer (Moscato, Pinot Grigio).
— Fisheye (Pinot Grigio).
— Flipflop (Pinot Grigio, Moscato, Cabernet Sauvignon).
— Foxhorn (White Zinfandel).
— Franzia (Vintner Select White Grenache, Vintner Select White Zinfandel, Vintner Select White Merlot, Vintner Select Burgundy).
— Hawkstone (Cabernet Sauvignon).
— HRM Rex Goliath (Moscato).
— Korbel (Sweet Rose Sparkling Wine, Extra Dry Sparkling Wine).
— Menage A Trois (Pinot Grigo, Moscato, White Blend, Chardonnay, Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, California Red Wine).
— Mogen David (Concord, Blackberry Wine).
— Oak Leaf (White Zinfandel).
— Pomelo (Sauvignon Blanc).
— R Collection By Raymond (Chardonnay).
— Richards Wild Irish Rose (Red Wine).
— Seaglass (Sauvignon Blanc).
— Simply Naked (Moscato).
— Smoking Loon (Viognier).
— Sutter Home (Sauvignon Blanc, Gerwurztraminer, Pink Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Moscato, Chenin Blanc, Sweet Red, Riesling, White Merlot, Merlot, White Zinfandel).
In order to reduce your consumption of arsenic in wine, we recommend that if you consume no more than two glasses of wine per day. Washington State wines were found to have the highest concentrations of arsenic; Oregon wines had the lowest. (Note: there’s no evidence that wines from other countries have lower levels of arsenic). If you are looking to buy sub-$10 wines, there are a number of excellent value-brand wines that are worth your attention. They include:
- Louis Martini Sonoma Cabernet
- Milbrandt Traditions Cabernet or Merlot
- Benziger Family Merlot
- Kirkland Signature Series Cabernet Mountain Cuvee or Stags Leap (slight more expensive, but a great splurge)
- Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay
- Carmenet Reserve Chardonnay
Some Washington wines, like H3 and most Columbia Crest Grand Estate varietals also provide excellent wine for $6-8 per bottle, albeit they may have slightly higher arsenic levels. We also recommend that you check out Louis Latour Grand Ardeche Chardonnay (Trader Joe’s carries it) which also sells for about $8. These are all high-quality wines at sub-$10 prices.