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The Scoop on Arsenic in Rice

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Though I’ve heard and read a bit about the discovery of worryingly high levels of  arsenic in rice, I’ve realized that many people are not aware of this news. So, let’s talk…I’ll discuss the health issues involved and make suggestions of what to do about them.

Let’s start with the background:

In 2012, the FDA and Consumer Reports conducted independent studies on rice and rice products sold in the U.S. and found that the levels of inorganic arsenic contained therein are quite high.

The concern about inorganic arsenic is that “long-term exposure can lead to the development of different types of cancer as well as serious cardiovascular, neurological, and other health problems.” (source, Science Daily). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified arsenic as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. “It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.”  (source, Consumer Reports)

A while back, the EPA  set the arsenic standard for drinking water at 10 parts per billion; there is no such limit yet for food and drinks. According to Consumer Reports, the EPA had initially recommended half that amount, of 5 parts per billion, which is the standard enacted in NJ.

So using the 5ppb benchmark, Consumer Reports, testing samples from over 200 types of rice and rice products found that “a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.” (source, Consumer Reports)

And, why rice of all things? Because it absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants, and most of the rice grown in the US is from the south-central region, which has a long history of producing cotton, a crop heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades. Arsenic also remains in animal feed, so there is danger of cross contamination.

The FDA is refusing to issue any warnings at this time. Here is a statement issued by a FDA Commissioner on the topic: “The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know. Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.” (source, FDA)

As usual, the FDA is slow to act on potential health hazards in our food. Unless there’s a clear bacterial outbreak caused by a food source, they typically drag their feet. For instance, when the National Resources Defense Council asked the FDA to issue a ban on BPA in products, it took the agency almost 4 years to respond (with a “no”). The point is that the fact that the FDA, despite its highly conservative nature, is even investigating the arsenic issue and continues to make it a “priority” to do so, says a lot already. Thus far, the FDA has tested over 200 samples, and claims to be testing 1,000 more.

You can see the results, in table format, of the Consumer Reports investigation (here) and the ongoing FDA investigation (here). If the number in the last column of either graph is above 5, then a single serving exceeds the New Jersey limit mentioned above.

What to do?

If you’re eating only a few servings of rice products a week, then you’re within the standard range for safe drinking water. You’re probably ok, though you should be aware that many food products may contain some rice in them.

But, three populations in particular, should be taking heed: pregnant women, moms of small children, and those eating a gluten-free diet. These individuals, myself including, may be ingesting several servings (or more) of rice per day, putting us way above the safe drinking limit concerning arsenic.

Here are practical steps to take, based on the research, my explorations, and recommendations by the food safety director at the Center For Science In the Public Interest (which I found in this helpful article):

  • Avoid baby rice cereals or limit to one serving per day, which is what Consumer Reports recommends. Consider another type of cereal. Better yet, why make cereal a base for your babies diet to begin with? Other easy-to-eat first foods are far more nutritious and are no highly processed: avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, squash, etc. Even Dr. Sears recommends avocados as the ideal 1st food. My daughter is doing fine without every having eaten cereal, and last we checked, her iron levels were normal, too. Also, be wary of cereals that use rice syrup, since that has arsenic, too. Nature’s One, maker of organic baby cereals, has recently re-worked their organic dairy-based formula to exclude brown rice syrup and they’re doing the same with the soy version (source, scroll down to bottom)
  • Though brown rice is healthier, be aware that white rice tends to have less arsenic than brown or wild (which makes sense, because white rice has the outer layers removed). I’m not quite advocating switching over to white, though…
  • Wash and cook rice in lots of water! Wash rice in water, pre-soak it in water, use extra water when cooking (Consumer Reports recommends 6 cups water per one cup rice), and spill water out at the end. Unfortunately, this process also washes out some of the nutrients from the rice. Apparently this reduces about 30% of the arsenic.
  • Origin matters; Organic does not. Rice grown in CA has less arsenic. Even better, buy imported jasmine and basmati rice as these tend to have the lowest levels. Consumer reports lists the origins of the rice samples it tested, you can use this as a guide when purchasing rice. Otherwise, read labels carefully.
  • Eat less rice and rice products. Check out this nifty table from Consumer Reports which gives you recommendations of how many servings of rice products it’s ok to eat in one week  (based on the 5ppb limit). If you want to use the FDA’s 10ppb limit, then simply double the recommended number of servings. I easily exceed the weekly limits suggested here in a single day! Read the fine print above, as the table assumes you are only eating one of the products for an entire week, which is highly unlikely. (source)
  • If you’re gluten-free: think outside the box! If, like me, you enjoy and rely on rice-baked products to round out your diet, then eating less rice will be quite a challenge. It is for me. I enjoy pasta, waffles, wraps, breads, cereals, cookies, crackers, rice cakes…all made from rice. I use rice vinegar when I cook and make salad dressing. If I bake, my go-to flour mix includes rice flour. It’s hard to find gluten-free products such as these not made out of rice. Products that use buckwheat, quinoa or corn, say, in pasta, waffles and bread, often contain rice flour as one of the main ingredients.

Here are some non-rice GF alternatives I’ve discovered (all are certified kosher):

  1. Breakfast: For cold cereal, there are many none-rice alternatives, including corn flakes and other corn-based cereals. I love Udi’s Gluten-free GranolaHot cereal: Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Steal Cut Oats. You can also use corn grits (polenta) to make a hot cereal, or cut them into squares and serve with butter and honey, yum. I haven’t found any GF waffles without rice. But, you can make your own waffles and pancakes using buckwheat flour, found in most healthfood stores.
  2. Lunch: I have yet to find a packaged GF bread that doesn’t contain rice, but you can make your own, there are lot’s of recipes out there like this one or this one. If you’re into wraps, La Tortilla Factory’s GF wraps are teff-and millet-based. I order them from Fresh direct.
  3. Dinner: Quinoa is an obvious choice, and switch up the colors–white, red, black–to get a variety of flavors. Polenta, which you can buy ready-made in supermarkets or in corn-grit form, is another alternative. You can dress it up with all sorts of flavors and I like to make polenta pizzas as a treat. And don’t forget, you can make buckwheat. In terms of pasta, very few GF varieties have no rice (even when they say they’re made with corn, buckwheat or quinoa), but Eden Organics has a 100% buckwheat soba noodle.

These are just a few suggestions of how to alter your diet to ingest less arsenic. I’d love to hear your ideas about how to minimize rice intake and any non-rice GF products that you enjoy!

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