Does Going Gluten-Free Increase Your Risk for Arsenic Toxicity?

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Nearly everyone is going gluten-free these days, or so it seems, and as a result, it’s easier than ever to find gluten-free options in grocery stores and restaurants. Enthusiasts believe strongly in the benefits of the diet, but there are some concerns, most recently about exposure to excessive arsenic levels in some gluten-free foods.

The Benefits of the Gluten-Free Diet

Gluten-free diets have gathered a lot of popularity for a host of reasons. One reason is Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that impacts one percent of the population. Over time, eating gluten damages the intestinal lining in the body causing permanent damage to Celiac sufferers. The body basically attacks itself when it’s exposed to gluten, making a gluten-free diet essential to survival.

For those with a gluten allergy or intolerance, the symptoms are less pronounced but still problematic. Glutenous grains contain oligosaccharides, starches which can cause bloating, diarrhea, flatulence, and stomach issues in those who are intolerant. As a result, a gluten-free diet can reduce instances of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in those who are sensitive. While less research is available on this theory, many enthusiasts believe that a gluten-free diet reduces inflammation in the body especially in those with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Some children are placed on a gluten-free diet because it’s thought to reduce symptoms of autism. But research has not backed up these claims, either. A study published in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder found that a gluten-free diet did not improve symptoms.

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a chemical element that’s toxic to human health. It’s a known carcinogen that can cause cardiovascular problems, neurological problems, reproductive disorders, and damage to DNA. In children, it’s known to cause developmental problems. Arsenic is immediately poisonous when you’re exposed to high amounts, usually through water and air pollution. Acute symptoms include vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

Arsenic is found naturally in the Earth’s crust and in smaller quantities in rocks and soil. Industrial processes like mining, smelting, and coal-fired power plants pollute the air and soil with arsenic as well. Agricultural pesticides which contain arsenic (many of which are now banned in the U.S.), still persist in the soil.

How Diet Can Expose You to Arsenic

It doesn’t matter if a food is organic, arsenic is a naturally occurring heavy metal that ends up in our food through agriculture. Plant roots absorb arsenic. Some plants absorb more than others. Certain foods are more likely to contain arsenic because they grow in soil where it tends to bio-accumulate the heavy metal.

These foods include Brussels sprouts because arsenic is drawn to the sulfur compounds found in the vegetable. Certain fish also tend to contain more arsenic because it exists naturally in seawater, and as a result, fish swim in it. These include tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, bluefish, and swordfish. Chicken and other poultry can also contain high levels of arsenic because chickens are often fed arsenic-based medications. Beer and wines have a tendency to contain large amounts of arsenic as well.

But most notably, for gluten-free dieters, rice and rice-based flours are among the most likely to contain arsenic. Rice absorbs more arsenic than other grain crops because unlike other plants, it absorbs high amounts of silicon to help strengthen its stalk. Silicon is chemically similar to arsenic, so the plant absorbs high amounts of arsenic when it’s present in the soil.

It’s important to note that much of the arsenic that’s found in the foods listed above is organic arsenic, meaning that it’s not as easily absorbed by the body as inorganic arsenic, which is found in the water supply. That’s why the water supply is much more tightly regulated than foods. Still, there is a risk. Dimethylarsinic acid (DMA) and monomethylarsonic acid (MMA), two organic forms of arsenic, are of particular concern.

The Increased Risk of Arsenic Exposure in a Gluten-Free Diet

A study published in the most recent edition of the journal Epidemiology found that a gluten-free diet can increase your exposure to arsenic. Gluten-free diets are known to substitute rice products for wheat; rice is known to bio-accumulate with arsenic because it’s naturally present in the soil.

The study followed 73 participants on a gluten-free diet out of 7,471 surveyed. Ages ranged from as young as six to 80. Among those who ate a gluten-free diet, arsenic levels in their urine were twice as high as in those who did not eat a gluten-free diet. Mercury levels were 70 percent higher as well.

“These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free diet,” Maria Argos, study author and assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, said of the research.  “But until we perform the studies to determine if there are corresponding health consequences that could be related to higher levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury by eating gluten-free, more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk.”

Part of the problem is that arsenic levels in food aren’t regulated in the U.S. compared to other countries.

“In Europe, there are regulations for food-based arsenic exposure, and perhaps that is something we here in the United States need to consider,” Argos said. “We regulate levels of arsenic in water, but if rice flour consumption increases the risk for exposure to arsenic, it would make sense to regulate the metal in foods as well.”

How to Avoid Exposure to High Levels of Arsenic on a Gluten-Free Diet

Just because you eat a gluten-free diet doesn’t mean your exposure to arsenic is necessarily too high. It wasn’t that participants didn’t eat gluten that was the problem, it was that they ate too many rice products. Here are some tips to continue your gluten-free diet while avoiding arsenic:

  • Consider other gluten-free grains rather than rice including amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff.
  • Substitute rice with cauliflower rice.
  • Avoid too many processed gluten-free foods, which may contain excessive rice products. Remember: processed is processed whether or not you’re on a gluten-free diet.

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