The British Food Standards Agency released an article today warning consumers not to eat a particular type of seaweed. Hijiki seaweed has been found to contain remarkably high levels of inorganic arsenic, a chemical element that is known to greatly increase risk of cancer. 

hijiki-seaweed-featured.jpgHijiki is a very dark, shredded type of seaweed traditionally eaten as an appetizer in Japanese cuisine. It is not used in sushi or Chinese restaurants. Occasionally it can be used in soups, salads, and other vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Currently there is no ban in place in Britain or the European Union. The food can be found in the specialty section of many supermarkets, health food stores, and Asian specialty stores. The British agency has contacted the EU about taking action to prohibit the sale of the food.

The Food Standards Agency carried out its own study, finding, “that hijiki contains inorganic arsenic–a form that occurs naturally in some foods. The survey also tested arame, kombu, nori and wakame but no inorganic arsenic was found in these types of seaweed.” The agency advises choosing from one of these other four types of seaweed instead of Hijiki.

The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment is an independent scientific committee in Britain. It has concluded that people should consume as little inorganic arsenic as reasonably practicable. The organic form is far less harmful and found in many foods including baked goods, cereals, meat, poultry, vegetables, and fruit.

According to Japanese folklore, consumption of hijiki aids with health and beauty. Specifically, traditional myths say the seaweed causes hair to grow thick, shiny, and luscious.

However, scientific studies in many nations have shown the food contains very high levels of the chemical inorganic arsenic. Many governments have warned their citizens not to consume the product, though it is not outlawed anywhere. The Japanese government is skeptical of the claim that ingesting this seafood poses a serious health risk. They released a statement in 2004 claiming, “There are no records of cases of arsenic poisoning as a result of the arsenic content of sea vegetables.” Despite this claim, tests show that inorganic arsenic does indeed exist in high levels in Hijiki. 

“If you have eaten hijiki occasionally it is unlikely that you will have raised your risk significantly of getting cancer. However, the Agency is advising that you stop eating it,” said the Food Standards Agency.