Arsenic in Rice: Should You Be Worried?
The media certainly seems to LOVE their drama and new research is giving them ample drama fodder.
Apparently, according to a newly published study, there are trace levels of arsenic in brown rice and foods that use rice as an ingredient. TRACE. But for those eating organic foods made with brown rice syrup, relying on rice due to a gluten free diet, feeding their infants rice cereal, and basically everyone else that simply enjoys dining on rice (or rice cereal) now and again this finding seems very frightening.
However, before you toss out all of the rice in your cupboards, let's sort out some pertinent facts.
#1. There are different types of arsenic.
Arsenic is a single element, often found in a combination as a chemical compound, and according to the American Cancer Society, it is a known carcinogen – meaning exposure may lead to certain cancers. Arsenic is used in pressure treated lumber, glass manufacturing, to harden lead and copper, electrical work, and up until 1993 as a pesticide on our food. If you are not working in an industry which relies on arsenic use, your most common exposure most likely comes from the organic versions rather than the inorganic types used in manufacturing.
Organic arsenic is naturally occurring in our soil, water, air, and even food. Providing the reasoning behind why it was recently discovered in apple juice as the apple trees absorb it from the surrounding environment. This type is believed to be far less toxic than the inorganic form. For more information on just what arsenic is, click here.
#2. Organic arsenic can be found in almost every natural food.
As mentioned above, arsenic is found naturally in our surrounding environment which means that both plants and animals absorb arsenic from the world around them simply by eating and drinking. As a result of the seemingly omnipresence of arsenic, the research presented by Consumer Reports found trace levels in nearly every food they included in the study – and as it was previously known to be in our drinking water, it has surely made its way into your family’s diet.
#3. Laws are already in place to ensure safe levels of arsenic are not exceeded.
Thankfully the World Health Organization has set safety levels for arsenic to be monitored in our drinking water (10 mcg per liter) as has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet what about our food? It seems that China has set a limit for rice (0.15mcg/g), but we do not.
It seems that the rice plant has the ability to pull in the arsenic from the environment, placing rice and particularly brown rice, at a higher concentration than other foods. This certainly makes sense when you consider that rice is grown in watery bogs, providing the perfect situation to absorb the water-soluble arsenic. While select media outlets chose to focus solely on organic brown rice, arsenic is being found in all types of rice whether grown conventionally or organically and whether it is whole grain brown rice or white rice.
#4. Concern is not for occasional rice consumers.
When it comes to rice, the FDA has yet to offer an official recommendation for consumption. All that HAS been mentioned is to vary the grains that we eat.
Yet as a soon-to-be mom myself, this is not exactly reassuring. Back in 2011, research published by Dartmouth in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that pregnant women who consume rice regularly may be placing their growing babies at particular risk of harm, including infant mortality, weakened immune systems, low birth weight, and shockingly even an increased risk for lung cancer as an adult!
From my perspective, even if we are to "vary" the grains in our diet, this may be interpreted differently by each person depending on whether you currently eat rice once per day or only once per month - so who is to say what amount of variation is enough? While more specific recommendations have not yet been made for pregnant women that I am aware of, at least they are being made for our kids.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers the most solid advice while also informing consumers that there is “no evidence of harm from arsenic that is naturally present in food”. However, parents are being encouraged to limit feeding their infants rice cereal to only once per day. The AAP also reminded parents with infants that they do not recommend rice milk for babies and that rice cereal, while the least allergenic of grain-based baby cereals, is not the most nutritious and can be replaced by other grains or even red meat. For more information on the best practices for feeding your young children, visit the AAP website or visit this blog post by Jill Castle, for another view on this topic from a colleague of mine focused on childhood feeding.
The Bottom Line?
I wish I had an exact amount to tell you to limit your dietary intake to, but unfortunately we just do not yet have the conclusive evidence available to do so. Many say because arsenic is naturally occurring in our environment, rather than being added to our food as a pesticide, we should not worry. Yet even knowing this, especially when it comes to infants and children, I am not comfortable encouraging others to continue to eat rice without any consideration of the potential impact.
Without further information on and study of rice's health effects over time, I would recommend the following precautions.
- Buy California Rice If You Can. Data suggests that the amounts vary greatly per product and growing locale. California rice was found to have lower levels than other areas in one study.
- Limit Your Rice Intake. Until we learn more, I suggest limiting your rice intake to one or two one-half cup serving per week, keeping an eye on the amount of brown rice syrup used to sweeten the packaged foods you are eating, and experimenting with a variety of whole grains.
- Experiment with New Grains. Who doesn’t like to mix things up? Venturing from bulgur and barley over to quinoa and farro will certainly help to spice things up in your kitchen! For recipe ideas, check out those available from the Whole Grains Council or check out the delicious options available here from the Smart Living Network. Get started with this beautiful farro salad from Sue Chef.
- Have Well Water Checked. If you have a well, have your drinking water tested for arsenic as this water source is not monitored by the EPA. As water is such a major part of our daily intake, I feel this is an incredible first step to determine what amounts are being delivered into your system each and every day.
For more specific suggestions from the Consumers Union, be sure to visit this page.
Regardless of the knowledge I currently do (and do not) have, I am thankful more extensive research is in the works. In fact, the FDA announced they are in the process of a large study on over 1,000 rice products found in the supermarket (including rice cakes, baby cereal, beverages, and more!). Stay tuned, as I will certainly do my best to keep you up to date with the latest!
Photo Credit: SweetBeetAndGreenBean