Arsenic and Old… Rice?

You’ve probably seen the recent news on high arsenic levels found in rice grown in the United States. As gluten-free eaters Jessica and I are big consumers of rice and its derivatives, so this news came as quite a shock. We wondered why arsenic levels are just being discovered now, and what it will mean for our diets. Realistically we understand this will be one of many “food issues” we face in our lifetime, so an all out panic and ensuing wide-scale elimination of this month’s offending food won’t work in the long term. Instead, we’re looking at the facts, weighing the consequences against other “food issues” out there, and setting a plan that will allow us to eat and live without fear.  And, while this plan involves fewer grains of rice, we won’t eliminate the starch completely.  We will, however, take precautionary measures with the rice we eat and use this as an opportunity to bring out our favorite, practical, non-rice recipes that allow us to explore some of the wonderful other grains that we can find. There’s the silver lining!  Come and cook with us!

Consumer Reports has just published a report that shows there are high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in rice and related rice products. Specifically, Consumer Reports tested 223 samples of various rice products, including plain rice, infant cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes, and rice crackers, as well as products often used by people on gluten-free or other special diets, such as rice pasta, rice flour, and rice drinks. What they found was arsenic, and sometimes a lot of it.  Arsenic can be fatal at very high levels, though less is known about how long-term exposure to low levels of arsenic will impact your health.  Even at smaller amounts arsenic continues to be a carcinogen and chronic exposure may affect the blood cells, lungs, cause problems with brain development in children and contribute to pregnancy complications such as miscarriages and low birth weight.

Unfortunately, the arsenic in our rice has been around for a long time.  Used in agriculture for many years, arsenic is in the ground where we grow our rice, and like lead, mercury and other heavy metals, persists in soil for a very long time. This means that organically grown rice is in the same arsenic boat as conventionally grown food. Arsenic also dissolves easily in water, the original culprit of high levels of arsenic in human consumption.  Now it has competition.  Here is a link to the Consumer Reports study as well as a PDF with the details of the test results (including brands).

The EPA is working on setting arsenic standards for fruit juices (yet another arsenic culprit) and is in the middle of doing its own analysis on rice products. While we wait for these new rules to make their way through what seems to be a highly bureaucratic machine, this is what we can do to lower our exposure to arsenic in food:

  1. Consumer Reports recommends you limit your weekly consumption of rice to 1 cup for children and 1½ cups for adults. Keep in mind that many healthier lightly processed products use rice syrup instead of sugar so check labels.
  2. Research has shown that rice produced in the US – particularly in Southern states – has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than aromatic varieties that show the lowest levels. So take your taste buds on an international trip by getting them acquainted to Indian basmati and Thai jasmine rice. And if you do buy domestic rice, stick to California, which has lower levels than any other state.
  3. Rinse your rice thoroughly – after checking arsenic levels of your municipal water to ensure that rinsing does not make it worse. In fact, California set its limit to 10-µg/L (or 10 parts per 1 billion) which is actually surprisingly high compared to the study’s results.
  4. Cook rice in plenty of water (6 cups to 1 cup) and drain it like you do with pasta
  5. While brown rice is theoretically the most nutritious of the lot, research has shown that the arsenic is found in the part called the germ that is removed in white rice. So, until we know more, white rice is not the worst choice.
  6. In addition to rice, the Consumer Report also found increased levels of arsenic in fruit juices such as apple and grape juices and is recommending kids under 6 don’t drink more than 4-6 ounces of apple or grape juice per day.
  7. For the time being, stay away from rice milk and replace it with other non-diary alternatives. I pour orange juice on my cereal these days.
  8. Lastly, be careful when feeding babies.  Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns, and discuss alternative meal plans for the child.

Our key take-away from this research is that the government needs to regulate arsenic in food by setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic to our food and water supply (the main use of arsenic is industrial). As for our families, we’ll continue to vary our grains with other options such as wheat and oats, which, while not gluten or arsenic-free, have lower levels of arsenic than rice. Come and cook with us!

Baked Polenta
Quick Quinoa and Vegetable Bowl à la Café Gratitude


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