If you take dietary supplements
Highly synthesized dietary supplements can be expected to contain no arsenic. Examples of these would be vitamin C tablets made from ascorbic acid, gelatin capsules of vitamin E, and standard B complex formulations. Such supplements have been available for decades.
In whole plant powders, the story is different. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury might be detected. It is a fact of life, and has been a fact of life since humans began eating the wild plants around them. The metals have always been with us and in us. Today, a dietary supplement cannot be manufactured from plant-based ingredients and not contain some level of “heavy” metals, including arsenic.
You undoubtedly wonder whether you should worry about these trace amounts of metals that could be in your dietary supplements. The answer is ambivalent: Yes and No.
Highly purified, standard vitamins can be expected to pose no threat. Some of the minerals, if they come from mined sources or from animal bone material could present higher amounts of heavy metals than desired. The country of origin and geologic region of the minerals, and the agricultural practices utilized by the farmer who raised the animals can influence the level of heavy metals in the finished nutritional raw material.
But before your worries run off with your emotions, it’s helpful to understand that safeguards are in place. In the United States, the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) was enacted in 1993 for multiple reasons, one of which was to put in place a higher level of official regulation of the dietary supplement industry in order to protect consumers. DSHEA has been followed by Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) that codify appropriate manufacturing procedures that should preclude contamination of supplements by heavy metals. Every reputable dietary supplement manufacturer in the country now follows GMPs, and FDA has accelerated their inspection and enforcement of GMPs.
As a result, every raw material that goes into a dietary supplement must be redundantly tested for heavy metals by the raw material supplier, and again by the manufacturer before it is added to any dietary supplement formula. A third test for heavy metals should be conducted on the finished product. At any of these three steps, a raw material or finished product showing excessive levels of any of the heavy metals must be rejected. Outside testing labs, unaffiliated with the seller of the raw materials or the marketer of the finished product, are most often used to do the testing.
So far so good. Safeguards are in place. Dietary supplements should be safe. But not everyone in the industry operates in a completely ethical fashion, nor are some companies as diligent as they should be in adhering to all the regulations and testing procedures.
It is still possible for contaminated raw materials to find their way into dietary supplements, usually due to failure to perform the required test. The instances are rare in comparison to the thousands of dietary supplements manufactured and sold safely throughout any given year.
And that is why the answer to the question, “Are dietary supplements safe?” still carries a measure of ambivalence. Nearly all supplements are safe, but diligence is still required to make sure that all are equally safe.
Feeling assured about arsenic
Laboratory analyses can identify the quantity of inorganic arsenic in any material or finished product. Inorganic arsenic does carry a cancer potential, but the amount required is exponentially larger than what is found in dietary supplements.
Arsenic in plants is overwhelmingly organically bound, making it harmless at any levels that might be ingested. This is especially true of sea plants. Sea vegetables contain very large amounts of arsenic compared to land plants. But as explained above, arsenic in sea plants enters and exits the body extremely rapidly, without undergoing any biological transformation, making it inert.
Among the land-based plants, inorganic arsenic levels are variable, but usually average around 20% of the total arsenic content. But within 48 hours, our bodies eliminate 50% to 75% of that inorganic arsenic.
Finally, analyses show that a 12 to 15 gram serving of multi-ingredient, 100% plant derived supplement made from whole plant powders, concentrates and extracts can deliver 10 mcg to 35 mcg total arsenic. So while the word arsenic may elicit fear, in consideration of these numbers, arsenic in dietary supplements (when used as directed) isn’t really so scary after all.