Facts about inorganic arsenic in food

Tuesday 12 Apr 16


Max Hansen
Senior Advisor
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 75 19

Inorganic arsenic is carcinogenic according to the World Health Organization, WHO. Rice and rice products are a significant source of inorganic arsenic in Denmark and the intake is so high that the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, assesses that the intake should be lowered. Consumers can reduce their risk by eating a varied diet. The National Food Institute has gathered existing knowledge about the risks of inorganic arsenic in food.

What is inorganic arsenic?

Inorganic arsenic is a substance which occurs naturally in soil and water. It has previously been used as a pesticide and in connection with impregnation of wood. Therefore local contamination from the substance may occur.

Who is affected by inorganic arsenic?

The entire population is basically affected because inorganic arsenic is found in many foods. Children are not considered more sensitive to the substance. However, children have a high food intake relative to their body weight. The risk of exposure to the substance is calculated in relation to body weight and as such children will often have a higher intake than adults. 

What are the risks of inorganic arsenic?

According to the WHO there is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of inorganic arsenic.(IARC, 2009). In 2009 the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, assessed the toxicity of inorganic arsenic and reached the conclusion that the substance is toxic at lower doses that previous assessments had shown. This led to many countries – including Denmark – to test foods with an emphasis on rice and rice products, as rice can contain may contain high concentrations of inorganic arsenic. People’s intake of inorganic arsenic was calculated based on the results.

Calculations show that the intake in Denmark is so high that it can be expected to lead to a slightly increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, e.g. skin, bladder and lung cancer. It is the National Food Institute’s assessment that the intake should be reduced based on health considerations.

The main sources of inorganic arsenic from food are rice and rice products. As mentioned the increased risk is small and as such it is not necessary to avoid eating boiled rice as long as it is part of a varied diet.

What are the limits on inorganic arsenic in food?

In 2015 EU maximum limits were introduced on inorganic arsenic in rice – including rice that is used in the production of food for infants and young children – as well as rice products.
For non-parboiled milled rice (polished or white rice) the limit is 0.2 milligrams per kilogram, while the limit is 0.25 mg/kg for parboiled rice and husked rice. The limit for rice waffles, rice wafers, rice crackers and rice cakes is 0.3 mg/kg. For rice used in the production of food destined for infants and young children the limit is 0.1 mg/kg.

An EU recommendation was issued the same year to all member states to perform increased monitoring of inorganic arsenic in foods in order to improve the dataset on which risk assessments of the intake are based. Denmark has set a maximum limit for arsenic in drinking water at 5 micrograms per liter.

What can the industry do to minimize inorganic arsenic in food?

The only options available to Danish food producers wanting to reduce inorganic arsenic in foods produced in Denmark is buying ingredients and using water that contains little inorganic arsenic.

What can consumers do to minimize their intake of inorganic arsenic?

Consumers should follow the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration’s advice and eat a varied diet. The concentration of inorganic arsenic in rice can be lowered by flushing rice.

Read more

Read EFSA’s risk assessment of arsenic: Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food (pdf) and the assessment from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer: Arsenic, metals, fibres, and dusts volume 100 C A review of human carcinogens.

The European maximum levels for inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products are outlined in the European Commission’s Regulation (EU) 2015/1006 (pdf). See also the Commission’s Recommendation (EU) 2015/1381 (pdf) to member states to increase montoring of inorganic arsenic in foods.