From arsenic in rice to toxic metals in sweets and veg . . . Poisons in your shopping basket

  • A Channel 4 investigation shows foods may contain dangerous metals
  • Cadmium is found naturally in almost all vegetables and wholemeal grains 
  • It builds up in the kidneys and can damage them in the long-term 
  • Mercury released into the ocean can affect seafood like tuna
  • Sweets can also contain aluminium (used in food colouring) 
  • Wild game has been traditionally killed with lead shot

By Etan Smallman for the Daily Mail

Published: 22:07, 16 November 2014 | Updated: 08:42, 17 November 2014

many popular rice products are contaminated
A Channel 4 Dispatches investigation has revealed that many popular rice products — including Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Cheerios and some baby food — may contain potentially dangerous levels of the contaminant

While there are strict regulations for levels of arsenic in drinking water, there are none for food.

And though levels in rice aren’t toxic in the short term, no research on long-term exposure has been done.

The best variety of rice to choose is basmati, which absorbs less arsenic from the soil.

It is also possible to remove 80 per cent of arsenic from rice in the cooking process. The key is to rinse thoroughly before cooking, to boil it in the largest volume of water possible (which allows the poison to leach out) and to rinse it again in boiling water after cooking.

Scarily, however, arsenic is not the only poison being served up in our homes. Heavy metals ranging from lead to mercury can be found in many of our favourite foods.


Cadmium is found naturally in almost all vegetables and wholemeal grains, as they take it in from the soil.

The metal is a carcinogen as well as a renal toxicant, which means it builds up in the kidneys and can damage them in the long-term, causing kidney disease in extreme cases. Shockingly, if you eat cadmium today, half of it will still be in your body 40 years from now — it lurks in the kidneys and liver.

Andy Meharg, professor of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, says: ‘Ironically, it’s people who are living most healthily and who have a vegetarian diet who often have higher exposures to cadmium.

‘South-West England has elevated cadmium in vegetables because of mining, and it is also a concern in industrial areas and allotments in cities.’

However, as with food containing arsenic, preparation can limit the impact.

To get rid of cadmium you should peel — or at least wash — vegetables because much of the contamination comes from soil particles sticking to the outside of produce.


Mercury released into the ocean by industrial and mining processes can affect seafood. Once in the water, it is consumed by fish and accumulates as they are consumed by predators, meaning the creatures at the top of the food chain amass the highest amounts.

Shark, swordfish and tuna are the main dietary sources of mercury, which can have a damaging effect on foetal and child development.

In adults, it has been associated with depression, tremors, insomnia, headaches and personality changes.

The metal builds up in the body, particularly in the kidneys and liver. The NHS advises that children, pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant should not eat swordfish, shark or marlin, and other adults should have no more than one portion a week.


Surprising research by the FSA last year said the highest level of aluminium was found in a sample of loose tea.

Tea is grown in acidic soils — which contain relatively high levels of aluminium — and the metal is stored in the leaves.

Sweets can also contain aluminium (used in food colouring).

And it can also be found in water (purified with aluminium sulphate, which makes micro-scopic impurities clump into particles large enough to be filtered out).

DID YOU KNOW? Every minute, 113,200 aluminium cans are recycled around the world

Christopher Exley, professor in bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University, has described this century as ‘the aluminium age’.

He warns that excess aluminium is deposited around the body, including the brain, and contributes towards neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

‘In my opinion, there is no safe level,’ he says. ‘There are levels that may not impact upon health in a lifetime, but these vary between individuals.

‘The best thing you can do is take precautions. Avoid processed food — instead, buy fresh ingredients.

‘Avoid unhealthy fizzy drinks, particularly those in aluminium cans, as well as energy drinks and iced tea.

‘And don’t buy long-life drinks in those cardboard cartons which contain a layer of aluminium foil.’


Wild game, such as grouse, pheasant and rabbit, has been traditionally killed with lead shot, although less toxic replacements have been introduced.

Tiny fragments can remain in the meat after the butcher has removed these pellets.

Scientists warn that even slightly elevated levels of lead in the body can affect intelligence and behaviour; in children, it can damage the developing brain.

The Food Standards Agency says: ‘There is no agreed safe level for lead intake.’

Professor Meharg says: ‘Again, it’s those who think that they’re eating the healthiest food — that hasn’t been farmed, that’s wild, that’s lean — who will be most affected. If you’re having game only once a month, that shouldn’t be a problem. When you have it a couple of times a week, I would worry about it.’

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