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Arsenic in Rice - Is it Safe to Eat Rice?

Rice is bad for you. That's the latest from Consumer Reports. Many foods, like eggs, butter, coffee, etc. have been vilified and then exalted; alternately bad for your health, then good. The latest food victim is rice, a grain that one half of the world's population depend upon for their very survival.

Now enter Consumer Reports studies about high levels of arsenic rice, and a conclusion by Consumer reports that you should limit the amount of rice you should eat to two servings a week. Good luck with that in Asia. Are they all dying from arsenic poisoning?

This page presents an explanation of the arsenic in rice issue, links to the reference sources and a bottom line conclusion.


Why is arsenic dangerous?

A known carcinogen, inorganic arsenic also has been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, and diabetes. Chronic arsenic exposure can initially cause gastrointestinal problems and skin discoloration or lesions. Signs of chronic low-level arsenic exposure can be mistaken for other ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Inorganic arsenic, the sum of arsenite (As+3) and arsenate (As+5), is generally considered more toxic than organic arsenic, and some organic species in food (such as arsenobetaine, commonly found in seafood) are considered nontoxic (

How does arsenic get into rice?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance and naturally finds its way into many foods, from apple juice and rice to meats like chicken, but usually in trace amounts. The FDA says rice is a leading dietary source of inorganic arsenic, both because of how commonly it's consumed and because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops. So, why or where is arsenic present in the soil where rice is grown?

Older pesticides (now banned) contained arsenic, which led to a build-up of arsenic in soils, which can still find its way into rice, especially since many forms of arsenic are water soluble and rice is often grown in wet rice paddies.. Arsenic was also used in a preservative for pressure-treating wood (that was banned in 2003) , which is commonly used for decks and playground equipment. Run-off from these operations can make its way into rice paddies. Consumer Reports has an interactive map of the known contamination of groundwater here.

Imported rice, from countries with no or lax standards or poor enforcement, like China (from which much apple juice is imported to the U.S.) also accounts for the presence of some arsenic in our food.

Who says rice is risky?

Consumer Reports reported in that rice, including organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, Gluten-free foods made with rice, Rice milk, Rice-based baby formula, Brown rice syrup, Rice-based snack foods, brown rice, and white rice contain arsenic, many at levels that should concern consumers.

According to WebMD , "studies by Scottish researchers have found higher levels of arsenic in rice grown in the U.S. than in basmati or jasmine rice from Thailand or India. The highest levels of arsenic in U.S.-grown rice came from Southern states. The lowest levels were detected in rice grown in California. Seafood also has high levels of arsenic, though most experts believe the form of arsenic in seafood to be nontoxic. "

The FDA has specifically tested for the presence of inorganic arsenic, analyzing nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products and is collecting about 1,000 more. Since rice is also included in many other fod products, these samples included rice products such as cereals, rice beverages and rice cakes. The arsenic levels can vary greatly from sample to sample, even within the same product. FDA's testing of the initial samples found these average levels of inorganic arsenic in micrograms (one millionth of a gram):

  • Rice (other than Basmati rice): 6.7 per 1 cup (cooked)
  • Rice cakes: 5.4 per 2 cakes
  • Rice beverages: 3.8 per 240 ml (some samples not tested for inorganic arsenic)
  • Rice cereals: 3.5 per 1 cup
  • Basmati rice: 3.5 per 1 cup cooked

The FDA concluded, based on data and scientific literature available now, that consumers should not change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains.
"We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. 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," says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. The FDA said that once it have completed its analysis of about 1,200 rice products, the agency will analyze these results and determine whether or not to issue additional recommendations.

Conclusions: What is the truth? What really is the risk and what can you do?

How big is the risk is one issue that truly falls into the category of "no one knows". There simply aren't enough studies from enough credible organizations looking at enough parameters to make a conclusion. Stay tuned. There will be follow-up studies, and we will report them here.

Rinsing rice

Published studies, including research by the FDA, indicate that cooking rice in excess water (from six to 10 parts water to one part rice), and draining the excess water, can reduce 40 to 60 percent of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice. The new FDA research also shows that rinsing rice before cooking has a minimal effect on the arsenic content of the cooked grain. Rinsing does, however, wash off iron, folate, thiamin and niacin from polished and parboiled rice. The tables below provide additional information on the study's findings..

Percent reduction with rinsing

Rice Inorganic Arsenic Iron Niacin Thiamine Folate
Brown 0 10 0 0 12
Polished 16 71 85 83 87
Parboiled 9 81 28 51 73

Percent reduction with cooking in excess water (averaged 6:1 and 10:1 ratios)

Rice Inorganic Arsenic Iron Niacin Thiamine Folate
Brown 50 0 0 42 45
Polished 43 46 42 39 43
Parboiled 61 75 53 64 62

References:

Many of the references are found by links throughout the article above, but are present here for clarity:

  1. Consumer Reports studies about high levels of arsenic rice
  2. FDA Looks for Answers on Arsenic in Rice - USFDA
  3. US FDA Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products
  4. Brown Rice and the Arsenic Conundrum, NY Times, April 15, 2013
    How dangerous is the arsenic in our rice? FDA needs to let us know, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2013
  5. FDA.gov - What You Can Do to Limit Exposure to Arsenic
    Tips to limit exposure to Arsenic
  6. NIH - Food Safety: U.S. Rice Serves Up Arsenic

Other citations and abstracts

  1. Arsenic in Rice - A Cause for Concern
    Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition: January 2015 - Volume 60 - Issue 1 - p 142-145
    Abstract
    Inorganic arsenic intake is likely to affect long-term health. High concentrations are found in some rice-based foods and drinks widely used in infants and young children. In order to reduce exposure, we recommend avoidance of rice drinks for infants and young children. For all of the rice products, strict regulation should be enforced regarding arsenic content. Moreover, infants and young children should consume a balanced diet including a variety of grains as carbohydrate sources. Although rice protein–based infant formulas are an option for infants with cows’ milk protein allergy, the inorganic arsenic content should be declared and the potential risks should be considered when using these products.
  2. Dartmouth University - Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products
    While rice is a healthy component of a balanced diet, it has more arsenic in it than other grains. If you eat rice or rice products regularly, you may be increasing your chances of long-term health problems.
  3. Healthline -  Arsenic in Rice: Should You Be Concerned?
    Arsenic is one of the world’s most toxic elements. Throughout history, it has been infiltrating the food chain and finding its way into our foods. However, this problem is now getting worse, as widespread pollution is raising the levels of arsenic in foods, posing a serious health risk. Recently, studies have detected high levels of arsenic in rice. This is a major concern, since rice is a staple food for a large part of the world’s population. Should you be worried? Let’s have a look.
  4. Nutrition.org.uk - Arsenic in rice; is it a cause for concern?
    22 February 2017 - Media reports over the last decade have highlighted concerns about the arsenic content of rice and the potential health implications particularly for infants and young children.
    The main sources of our exposure to arsenic are food and water, although it should be noted that tobacco smoke contains arsenic. Arsenic is found in many foods including grains like rice, fruits and vegetables. It is also found in in seafood but this is the less toxic organic arsenic.  The maximum concentration of arsenic has been found in rice bran, so products made from this, for example rice milks, have a higher concentration.
    This article looks at arsenic in the diet and the regulations in place that help ensure our intake is kept to safe levels.

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