Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?

What happens when our crops are grown in soil contaminated with arsenic-based pesticides and arsenic drug-laced chicken manure?

When arsenic-containing drugs are fed to chickens, not only does the arsenic grow out into their feathers, which are then fed back to them as a slaughterhouse byproduct, but the arsenic can also get into their tissues and then into our tissues when we eat eggs or meat, a cycle depicted at the start of my video Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?. This explains why national studies have found that those who eat more poultry have tended to have more arsenic flowing through their bodies. Why would the industry do that? In modern poultry farms, often called CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations, there can be 200,000 birds under one roof and the floors of these buildings become covered with feces. While this so-called factory farming decreases costs, it also increases the risk of disease. That’s where arsenic-containing drugs and other antibiotic feed additives can come in: to try to cut down the spread of disease in such an unnatural environment. If you’re feeling a little smug because you don’t eat chicken, what do you think happens to the poop?

As depicted at 1:17 in my video, from chicken manure, the arsenic from the drugs in the animal feed can get into our crops, into the air, and into the groundwater, and find its way into our bodies whether we eat meat or not. Yes, but how much arsenic are we really talking about? Well, we raise billions of chickens a year, and, if, historically, the vast majority were fed arsenic, then, if you do the math, we’re talking about dumping a half million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year—much of it onto our crops or shoveled directly into the mouths of other farm animals.

Most of the arsenic in chicken waste is water soluble, so, there are certainly concerns about it seeping into the groundwater. But, if it’s used as a fertilizer, what about our food? Studies on the levels of arsenic in the U.S. food supply dating back to the 1970s identified two foods, fish aside, with the highest levels—chicken and rice—both of which can accumulate arsenic in the same way. Deliver an arsenic-containing drug like roxarsone to chickens, and it ends up in their manure, which ends up in the soil, which ends up in our pilaf. “Rice is [now] the primary source of As [arsenic] exposure in a non seafood diet.”

I was surprised to learn that mushrooms are in the top-five food sources of arsenic, but then it made sense after I found out that poultry litter is commonly used as a starting material to grow mushrooms in the United States. As you can see at 2:58 in my video, over the years, the arsenic content in mushrooms has rivaled arsenic concentration in rice, though people tend to eat more rice than mushrooms on a daily basis. Arsenic levels in mushrooms seemed to be dipping starting about a decade ago, which was confirmed in a 2016 paper that looked at a dozen different types of mushrooms: plain white button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, shiitake, trumpet, oyster, nameko, maitake, alba clamshell, brown clamshell, and chanterelle. Now, mushrooms are only averaging about half the arsenic content as rice, as you can see at 3:37 in my video.

Just like some mushrooms have less arsenic than others, some rice has less. Rice grown in California has 40 percent less arsenic than rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Why? Well, arsenic-based pesticides had been used for more than a century on millions of acres of cotton fields, a practice noted to be “dangerous” back in 1927. Arsenic pesticides are now effectively banned, so it’s not simply a matter of buying organic versus conventional rice because millions of pounds of arsenic had been laid down in the soil well before the rice was even planted.

The rice industry is well aware of this. There’s an arsenic-toxicity disorder in rice called “straighthead,” where rice planted in soil too heavily contaminated with arsenic doesn’t grow right. So, instead of choosing cleaner cropland, they just developed arsenic-resistant strains of rice. Now, lots of arsenic can build up in rice without the plant getting hurt. Can the same be said, however, for the rice consumer?

It’s the same story with wine. Arsenic pesticides were used, decade after decade, and even though they’ve since been banned, arsenic can still be sucked up from the soil, leading to “the pervasive presence of arsenic in [American] wine [that] can pose a potential health risk.” Curiously, the researchers sum up their article by saying that “chronic arsenic exposure is known to lower IQ in children,” but if kids are drinking that much wine, arsenic toxicity is probably the least of their worries.

Hold on. Chickens are being fed arsenic-based drugs? See Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? to find out more.


 I expect the arsenic-in-rice issue brought up a lot of questions, and giving you answers is exactly why I’m here! Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Happens if You Have Red Wine or Avocados with a Meal?

Whole plant sources of sugar and fat can ameliorate some of the postprandial (after meal) inflammation caused by the consumption of refined carbohydrates and meat.

Studies have shown how adding even steamed skinless chicken breast can exacerbate the insulin spike from white rice, but fish may be worse. At 0:18 in my video The Effects of Avocados and Red Wine on Meal-Induced Inflammation, you can see how the insulin scores of a low-carbohydrate plant food, peanuts, is lower compared to common low-carb animal foods—eggs, cheese, and beef. Fish was even worse, with an insulin score closer to doughnut territory.

At 0:36 in my video, you can see the insulin spike when people are fed mashed white potatoes. What do you think happens when they’re also given tuna fish? Twice the insulin spike. The same is seen with white flour spaghetti versus white flour spaghetti with meat. The addition of animal protein may make the pancreas work twice as hard.

You can do it with straight sugar water, too. If you perform a glucose challenge to test for diabetes, drinking a certain amount of sugar, at 1:10 in my video, you can see the kind of spike in insulin you get. But, if you take in the exact same amount of sugar but with some meat added, you get a higher spike. And, as you can see at 1:25 in my video, the more meat you add, the worse it gets. Just adding a little meat to carbs doesn’t seem to do much, but once you get up to around a third of a chicken’s breast worth, you can elicit a significantly increased surge of insulin.

So, a chicken sandwich may aggravate the metabolic harm of the refined carb white bread it’s on, but what about a PB&J? At 1:49 in my video, you can see that adding nuts to Wonder Bread actually calms the insulin and blood sugar response. What if, instead of nuts, you smeared on an all fruit strawberry jam? Berries, which have even more antioxidants than nuts, can squelch the oxidation of cholesterol in response to a typical American breakfast and even reduce the amount of fat in your blood after the meal. And, with less oxidation, there is less inflammation when berries are added to a meal.

So, a whole plant food source of sugar can decrease inflammation in response to an “inflammatory stressor” meal, but what about a whole plant food source of fat? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, within hours of eating a burger topped with half an avocado, the level of an inflammatory biomarker goes up in your blood, but not as high as eating the burger without the avocado. This may be because all whole plant foods contain antioxidants, which decrease inflammation, and also contain fiber, which is one reason even high fat whole plant foods like nuts can lower cholesterol. And, the same could be said for avocados. At 3:12 in my video, you can see avocado causing a significant drop in cholesterol levels, especially in those with high cholesterol, with even a drop in triglycerides.

If eating berries with a meal decreases inflammation, what about drinking berries? Sipping wine with your white bread significantly blunts the blood sugar spike from the bread, but the alcohol increases the fat in the blood by about the same amount. As you can see at 3:40 in my video, you’ll get a triglycerides bump when you eat some cheese and crackers, but if you sip some wine with the same snack, triglycerides shoot through the roof. How do we know it was the alcohol? Because if you use dealcoholized red wine, the same wine but with the alcohol removed, you don’t get the same reaction. This has been shown in about a half dozen other studies, along with an increase in inflammatory markers. So, the dealcoholized red wine helps in some ways but not others.

A similar paradoxical effect was found with exercise. If people cycle at high intensity for about an hour a half-day before drinking a milkshake, the triglycerides response is less than without the prior exercise, yet the inflammatory response to the meal appeared worse, as you can see at 4:18 in my video. The bottom line is not to avoid exercise but to avoid milkshakes.

The healthiest approach is a whole food, plant-based diet, but there are “promising pharmacologic approaches to the normalization” of high blood sugars and fat by taking medications. “However, resorting to drug therapy for an epidemic caused by a maladaptive diet is less rational than simply realigning our eating habits with our physiological needs.”

Protein from meat can cause more of an insulin spike than pure table sugar. See the comparisons in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

Interested in more information on the almond butter study I mentioned? I discuss it further in How to Prevent Blood Sugar and Triglyceride Spikes After Meals.

Berries have their own sugar, so how can eating berries lower the blood sugar spike after a meal? Find out in If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit?


For more on avocados, check out:

And here are more videos on red wine:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: