By Jennifer Iscol and Vic Dolcourt
About the Survey
As part of our three-part series on arsenic in rice, we surveyed over 70 gluten-free manufacturers to get an informal snapshot of the range of industry positions on this issue. Arsenic in food is not regulated in the United States or Europe, although there is a proposal before the United Nations’ Codex commission to regulate arsenic in rice. (See Arsenic in Rice: Consumer Advocates Call for Regulation). Recent studies indicate that long term dietary exposure to low doses of arsenic, a known carcinogen, poses a health risk. With worried consumers asking about arsenic levels despite a lack of federal guidelines, gluten-free manufacturers are between a rock and a hard place.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, so there is no quick fix for reducing it in our food supply. Manufacturers do not have access to economical sources of arsenic-free rice ingredients; they are just one link in the chain that brings food to our tables. For people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a strict gluten-free diet is the only known treatment. Gluten-free consumers consider manufacturers of gluten-free products their allies in maintaining their health, knowing the manufacturers tend to be as committed to food safety and quality as the consumers they serve.
After conducting research for this article series, we are concerned by the potential danger of arsenic to adults and children in our community, and the extent to which gluten-free food manufacturers and gluten-free consumers must fend for themselves until the FDA takes action, which would set clear standards to guide both manufacturers and consumers. Arsenic in our food supply is an issue that impacts the general U.S. population, but people on a gluten-free or rice-based diet, pregnant women, infants and children are at highest risk.
The companies that chose to participate
We applaud the commitment to consumer safety and transparency shown by the companies that responded to our survey or are in the process of responding. Most stated that they are following the issue closely, that consumer safety is an important aspect of their business, and that they are trying to be as responsive and attentive as they can to consumer concerns.
The companies that chose not to participate
As arsenic in food is not regulated, we made a decision at the start of this project that we would not publish a list of companies that do not reply, that reply with information that is not relevant or illuminating, or that ask not to be included. Our intention is to provide our community with arsenic-related information from companies that are ready to share it, and to signal to other manufacturers that gluten-free consumers will be seeking this information to protect their health and make decisions at the grocery store. If there are national brands that you use on a regular basis, and they are not listed below, we encourage you to contact the company for a statement on arsenic. Most companies are very attentive to trends in consumer requests and concerns.
How we conducted our survey
Starting in January 2015, we contacted over 70 of the largest and most popular gluten-free brands with national distribution. We emailed an inquiry with three questions to each company, asking what type of rice they use, the geographical origin of the rice, and whether they test for arsenic. We also invited them to send us their comments on the topic.
In the absence of better data and mandatory testing, we used the type of rice, geographical origin and arsenic testing, all as reported by the company, as the best means we have for presenting arsenic information from a variety of manufacturers in a consistent format.
We followed up with phone calls to companies that did not respond to the email and some of those provided a useful reply. Some companies replied that they preferred not to participate in the survey. Over 40 manufacturers did not reply to the initial email and did not return the follow-up call. For companies that have a relatively large share of the gluten-free market, we made an extra effort to contact the correct department or individual to make sure they had an opportunity to reply. In the end, we compiled responses from 18 companies at the time of publication. We will continue to post additional company replies as they come in and allow companies to update their responses with new information.
California rice v. South Central U.S. rice
Rice grown in California is generally known to be lower in inorganic arsenic than rice grown in the South Central United States (Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi). A 2007 market basket study comparing arsenic levels of rice in different geographical regions in the United States found that California levels of arsenic in rice were 41% lower than South Central levels. In the FDA testing of arsenic levels of whole grain rice and rice products, the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic were seen in rice from California.
However, the FDA emphasized in its testing report that many factors can influence arsenic levels in rice and cautions against using its testing data to make “state-to-state or country-to-country comparisons.” It is not the case that every sample of California rice is lower in arsenic than every sample of rice from the South. The bottom line is that the best way to determine the arsenic level of a specific product and to convey that information to consumers is to test products regularly and publish the data.
Testing results available to the public
Some products have already been tested for arsenic and the results are available online. Consumer Reports tested a number of popular brands of rice-based products for arsenic in 2012 and published the test results with brand names. Gluten-Free Watchdog, which was founded to test gluten-free products for trace amounts of gluten, recently began testing gluten-free products for arsenic. The testing is paid for by the company’s subscriber base. The results are only available to subscribers in order to encourage more community participation, which would expand the amount of testing that can be performed.
Most of the companies we surveyed, and many other companies with gluten-free offerings, have numerous products that do not contain any rice ingredients. In addition, the following gluten-free manufacturers do not use rice in any of their products:
Against the Grain Gourmet: Baguettes, rolls, bagels, pita bread, pizza shells and pizza
Breads from Anna: Mixes for breads, baking, pie crust, pizza crust and brownies
Chebe: Mixes and frozen dough for bread, breadsticks, pizza and rolls
Hail Merry: Tarts, macaroons, granola, seasoned nut and seed mixes; all raw (dehydrated not baked)
Maninis: Fresh pasta and rolls, and baking mixes for bread and baking
Namaste Foods: Pasta dinners, soup, mixes for bread, baking and pizza crusts
Smart Flour Foods: Pizza, pizza crust, hamburger buns, and pancake and waffle mix
XO Baking Co.: Cookies and mixes for baking, pancakes and waffles, and frosting
Additional articles in our special report on arsenic in rice:
Arsenic in Rice: Consumer Advocates Call for Regulation
Arsenic in the Gluten-Free Diet: Facts and Tips
Comments are welcome below. Comments are moderated so there may be a delay in posting.