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Healthy food compromised? Arsenic in brown rice, lead in turmeric

Bill Bryson’s engaging and hilariously encyclopedic (if such two words can go together) A Short History of Nearly Everything includes all sorts of wisdom nuggets and cautionary tales. One that has stayed with me over the years since I read the books over a decade ago is the unintended consequences of good-hearted inventions by one brilliant engineer, Thomas Midgely Jr.

According to Bryson, Midgely had a disturbing “instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny.” As a chemical engineer, he “solved” the problem of engine knocking, a malfunction in early combustion cars, by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline. With this first “invention” for GM, he generated benefits for his company while damaging the environment and the public.

Like other colorful plant-based foods, turmeric is rich in phytonutrients that may protect the body by neutralizing free radicals (pollution, sunlight) and shielding the cells from damage. Turmeric is also adulterated with heavy metals, causing brain damage, cancer, and the death of at least 1.4 million people in the Indian subcontinent in 2019, according to The Economist; could this fraudulent practice put in risk consumers from other regions?

If leaded gasoline wasn’t enough of a disaster, Midgely went on with his apparent contribution to society:

“Refrigerators in the 1920s were often appallingly risky because they used dangerous gases that sometimes leaked. One leak from a refrigerator at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929 killed more than a hundred people. Midley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive and safe to breathe.”

Bill Bryson, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

Unintended consequences of some “good” (and lucrative) ideas

Thomas Midgely Jr. came up with a “solution: dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, commercially known as freon. It could be breathed and wasn’t flammable. What could go wrong? Decades later, CFC aerosols had caused serious damage to the ozone layer.

Over the decades after Midgely’s breakthroughs, their unintended consequences were crucial for advancing modern regulatory frameworks. Modern medicine learned soon enough that lead caused behavioral disorders, anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. Only mandatory bans of the substance in fuel, paints, plumbing materials, or the environment reduced lead poisoning and its effects.

When it comes to public safety, those calling for reducing regulation should research the effects of dangerous substances when they get to us through the air, water, or food.

Recent controversies around the safety of the so-called raw food have generated a backlash against relying on regulatory systems that decide what food or food derivative is safe and under which conditions it should be produced, stored, distributed, and consumed.

The risk of believing all regulation is “bad”

Critics of regulatory frameworks have been less vocal about the reality of modern food distribution. This complex system includes producing, processing, transporting, consuming, and disposing of food worldwide.

Rich countries are so careless about food waste that perfectly edible products deemed unsellable (also known as “ugly” produce, for example) can become a lucrative business: consider the entrepreneurs behind distribution companies such as Imperfect Foods (motto: “Ugly Produce Delivered To You”) or Misfits Market (moto: “Ugly Vegetables up to 40% less”).

Abhi Ramesh, the young CEO behind Misfits Market, built a $1 billion startup just by identifying that many people would be perfectly fine paying less money for produce that’s prime for consumption but doesn’t look good on the shelves of conventional stores.

With no regulation, most food consumed in urban and industrialized regions, where food likely to come from all over the planet is most pervasive, would need more information when buying or eating something.

We trust organisms labeling unprocessed, mildly processed, or highly processed food and drinks to find out about them, from their ingredients to their expiration date, whether pesticides or genetically modified varieties were used or avoided (paying an extra or not for “organic” alternatives), or where the product—and ideally, though not always—and the ingredients come from.

Rice is such a healthy and available option, right?

Complaints about food regulation have been tilting in social media towards advocates for a radical vision of raw food—which can be very valuable in hyperlocal, high-trust environments—and against any regulation at all. However, other news regarding food safety deserves more attention —and not for the need for less regulation, but for the lack of credible mechanisms capable of protecting the public from potential harm.

Doing things as innocuous as drinking water from a well where safety tests aren’t performed regularly or eating rice grown and treated in highly-polluted areas in (!) regularly can increase our body’s exposure to amounts of arsenic considered unsafe: prolonged exposure to arsenic compounds dramatically increases the odds of developing cancers of the skin, bladder, and lung.

Private well owners are responsible for the safety of their water, and testing isn’t reinforced. It can be costly, so many of the more than 23 million households relying on them for drinking water only in the United States face the risk of unsafe levels of arsenic. Contrary to anti-regulatory rhetoric, the lack of adequate or effective regulations (e.g., a mandatory private well test) creates a health hazard.

In all its varieties, rice is a staple food for billions of people of all ages—babies included, due to the popularity of infant rice cereal fortified with iron—across the world. Rice cereal isn’t the only iron-fortified baby food: oat, barley and multigrain include fortified options. The reason? Rice absorbs arsenic accumulated in polluted soils more readily than most other crops.

Why does rice absorb more heavy metals than other crops

Rice plants don’t only absorb arsenic from the soil but also from the irrigation water used to flood the fields. Both soil and water can contain high levels of arsenic accumulated after decades of heavy metal pollution due to farming chemicals and (unmonitored) industry discharges. Studies confirm that brown rice, looked after as a healthier alternative to white rice, accumulates higher amounts of arsenic and other pesticide contaminants:

“In recent years, gluten-free, dairy-free, and plant-based dieting has increased in popularity, and rice is a common substitute. The potential health risks and benefits of consuming more brown rice than white rice remain unclear. Despite this, brown rice is often advocated as a healthier alternative to white rice in mainstream diet and nutritional messaging. Evidence of any protective effect of consuming more brown rice than white is limited.”

“What might continue diminishing the evidence between brown rice and its human health benefits? Brown rice contains a greater arsenic concentration than white rice, and the human health risks associated with dietary arsenic exposure are well-established.”

Dietary exposure to arsenic and other heavy metals isn’t limited to rice; rice is the primary crop and food stable of more than half the world’s population, with Asia as the world’s largest rice-producing and rice-consuming region. In the previous crop year, rice production reached 1 billion metric tons worldwide, with China and India—countries particularly affected by heavy metal pollution—accounting for more than half of the global output.

Arsenic in China’s soil and water sources

To highlight the potential public health problem in the coming decades regarding only one cereal, the annual average per capita rice consumption is 54 kg (119 pounds) across the world, though the hazard is unevenly distributed: Asia accounts for around 90% of the world’s total rice consumption.

Studies confirm that rice grown in Asia has been found to have higher arsenic content than rice grown in the US:

“An estimated 57–96% of the total arsenic measured in Chinese-produced rice has been found to be of the inorganic form, which stresses the importance of conducting iAs risk assessments in China.”

A Comprehensive Review of Arsenic Exposure and Risk from Rice and a Risk Assessment among a Cohort of Adolescents in Kunming, China, Int J Environ Res Public Health, October 2018

The lack of reliable calculations based on big enough samples makes it impossible to know the real concentration of hazardous pollutants within the food chain. Heavy metals aren’t the only risk accumulated over the decades in some food staples. Persistent chemicals, such as organomercurial compounds, have reached such levels in the oceans that eating some fish from the sea may pose more potential health dangers than benefits.

Trusting raw food beyond high-trust, short food supply chains?

An integrated food network makes it difficult to eliminate all risks of eating things with a high concentration of toxic compounds, for most of the population cannot rely on organically produced and grown local food.

But the sources of food pollution don’t stop at the soil and water contaminated by heavy metals affecting crops and persistent chemicals like PCBs (organomercurial compounds) affecting animals and fish: the indiscriminate use of growth hormones and antibiotics in animals after World War II led to modern regulation regarding meat processing and dairy products after studies proved the link between hormones in milk and other products and public health phenomena like early puberty in children and increased risk of several types of cancer.

Advocates of the so-called raw food don’t emphasize the impossibility of avoiding food poisoning if modern distribution systems—where local produce, meat and dairy products are minority—were to allow mass consumption of raw fish or raw milk. Uncooked meat and poultry, eggs, fruits and vegetables can contain harmful germs such as Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, and Yersinia.

According to their advocates, raw milk from pastured animals and derivatives of raw milk products include not only the source of calcium, iron, vitamins and fatty acids from any milk but also many types of beneficial enzymes that—they assess—are inactivated by pasteurization.

However, pasteurization allows for milk and dairy products to be safely stored and transported long distances with little to no public health risk. In contrast, raw milk contaminated by germs could threaten people at risk (children, pregnant women, immunocompromised people) with life-threatening infections like those caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, and Brucella.

Our interconnected food chain

When carefully processed and constrained within high-trust short food supply chains, raw milk and certain raw meat and raw fish products, once tested and cleared of any infection, could present health and culinary benefits to those willing to face the risk and price premium to consume them. However, only a minority of farmers’ markets, farm shops, community-supported agriculture systems, and solidarity purchase groups test raw food accordingly.

Culinary traditions that favored raw fish, like Japanese cuisine, do so nowadays, facing the regulatory caveat of catching fish potentially contaminated with heavy metals, and performing traditional fish preservation (salting, drying, eating it right away) to avoid a loss of flavor and nutrients. If not cooked nor refrigerated, fish and shellfish risk containing harmful germs like norovirus and Vibrio, causing severe diarrhea and vomiting.

The risks of raw food outweigh any nutrient and culinary benefits in immunocompromised people. Those with liver disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV, or blood disorder (thalassemia). Japanese cuisine has fought the risk of food poisoning with raw fish consumption by using strict was of assuring freshness and proper manipulation by relying on high-trust channels similar to those established by the best short food supply chain that allow some of the best farm-to-table culinary movements to flourish across the world, like the so-called California cuisine.

However, can the farm-to-table best practices be applied to often international food supply chains dealing with rampant pesticide and preservative use, heat shocks and improper and/or inconsistent manipulation practices, not to talk about hundreds, often thousands of miles of transcontinental handling in containers and semi-trailer trucks?

To the risk of heavy metals in staple crops, hormones and antibiotic abuse in meat and dairy, or the double-edged sword popularity of raw foods, especially when consumed out of high-trust short-food supply chains, experts now add the rise in popularity of ingredients produced in highly unregulated markets where food tampering is a real problem.

The world has discovered ancient crops that had retained their localized appeal for centuries, unaware of the acceleration produced by the Columbian Exchange, a phenomenon that led Eurasia and other parts of the world to produce Amerindian staples and to Americans to produce European ones.

Public poisoning through unregulated “healthy” condiments?

Turmeric (Curcuma), curry’s main ingredient, is among the traditional products reaching an international, mainstream appeal lately due to its anti-inflammatory properties, known to traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) for centuries if not millennia. Turmeric’s earthy flavor and “vibrant hue,” a golden pigment culturally associated with ancient culinary traditions across the Indian subcontinent, gave turmeric its name in Hindi, which derives from the Sanskrit “golden colored.”

But, as The Economist explains, the sought-after characteristics of this coloring and flavoring agent for millions of people in Asia as the base for curries and related condiments, is driving rampant adulteration that represents a public health hazard with regional, potentially global consequences.

Turmeric’s skin-staining yellowness has become the symbol of the ingredient’s worth and—The Economist explains—intermediaries are using dangerous additives to ensure short-term economic gain:

“To heighten their color, the rhizomes from which the spice is extracted are routinely dusted with lead chromate, a neurotoxin. The practice helps explain why South Asia has the highest rates of lead poisoning in the world. The heart and brain diseases it causes—to which children are especially susceptible—accounted for at least 1.4m deaths in the region in 2019.”

The case reminds public health experts of previous cases of public poisoning by using hazardous additives to increase the bulk or appearance of a product. In Spain’s eighties, a company sold rapeseed oil adulterated with machinery oil. Detected in 1981 in localized areas of Spain’s Mediterranean Coast and Madrid, the outbreak affected 20,000 people, with over 300 dying within months and thousands disabled. The disease was named toxic oil syndrome.

Bangladesh shows the way out of the turmeric mess

Turmeric’s mass poisoning in Asia could spread without public outreach through reliable information, with unknown consequences if the practice happens to reach other countries where turmeric demand has skyrocketed: paradoxically, health-conscious buyers from wealthy countries could put themselves at risk by buying unsourced turmeric.

The consequences in Asia are already disturbing. Only in 2019, lead poisoning could have lowered Asian productivity by 9% of GDP, and only one country traditionally reliant on the staple, Bangladesh, has controlled the mass adulteration: Bangladesh.

Also in 2019, Bangladesh accepted advice from Stanford University and the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research to launch a campaign against turmeric adulteration. The campaign included rules against adulteration, and the prime minister discussed the issue in prime time on television, followed by warnings across the country’s bazaars:

“According to newly published data, the country thereby reduced the prevalence of turmeric adulteration in its spice markets to zero in just two years. That slashed lead levels in the blood of Bangladeshi turmeric-mill workers by about a third. Nationwide, it probably saved thousands of lives. Early analysis suggests that each extra year of healthy life cost a mere $1 to preserve. Achieving the same benefit through cash transfers is estimated to cost over $800.”

Where to begin

According to recent estimates, around 815 million children, or one in three of the global total, have been poisoned by lead. This untold disaster explains the learning gap between children in rich and poor countries:

“The poisoning has many causes. Weak or absent regulators permit lead-infused cooking utensils, cosmetics and other products. Yet adulterated turmeric looks like a major culprit almost everywhere, chiefly owing to poor practice in India, which produces 75% of the spice.”

Tainted turmeric coming from India is a hazard to the local population. If lead-laced turmeric enters the global markets, those buying the “healthy” condiment could add one more concern to their lives.

When properly designed and established, regulatory frameworks are important tools to avoid catastrophes waiting to happen. Is it really a good idea to discredit, defund, or dismantle the experts who should be paying attention to such developments?