Five Things You Need To Know About Arsenic In Rice (Before Dinner Time)


When both Consumer Reports and the FDA issued reports recently about the high levels of arsenic in rice — notably brown rice — many moms, in the Whole-Foods-Buying-Whole-Grain-Loving crowd I tend to hang out with, freaked out.

An example from Brookline:

I was freaked out because the source of the warning seemed so trustworthy – FDA and Consumer Reports. I usually ignore these things but rice seems like such a basic. We eat a fair amount of rice (mostly brown) because we're trying to be healthy and eat whole grains and not too much pasta, etc. etc...I love quinoa but my daughter doesn't so I don't make that as often. I also was freaked out because a Whole Foods brand was on there. I don't buy that particular brand, but still...

Another mother from New York wrote:

I was upset — and also irritated-- by the news. But mostly, I am anxious. We already have a lot of cancer in our family. I already spend so much time planning and preparing healthy alternatives to meet the diverse needs of my children (who favor certain foods) and my husband (who has tendencies toward reflux and high cholesterol and is a vegetarian) and myself (allergies and kosher).

We eat brown rice about twice a week for dinner...But my kids also enjoy rice crackers (brown and white) as well as rice cakes for "healthy" snacks. We also eat "yellow" rice and beans for breakfast almost every weekend morning at our favorite Cuban brunch spot...and as my husband is a vegetarian, we tend to eat out (or order in) from Asian restaurants about once a week (more helpings of brown rice and white rice as well as rice noodles). Altogether, that's easily five helpings, not counting things like the rice-brownie treats that were handed out at the Maker Faire festival to my eager (innocent) children last weekend.

For background: rice is particularly vulnerable to this problem. Here's why, according to Consumer Reports:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.

And this doesn't appear to be the case of just a tiny dash of toxin you can blithely ignore, given the reports. Inorganic arsenic (the type we are talking about here) is a known carcinogen. Again, Consumer Reports:

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 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.

So what's an anxious mom to do? Are we doomed to quinoa? I turned to the Center For Science In the Public Interest and spoke with Caroline Smith DeWaal, the group's director of food safety, and asked how consumers should react to the "worrisome" reports.

She said there are a number of steps consumers can take to reduce their exposure to arsenic even if they eat a lot of rice and rice products. Here, condensed and edited, are her top five suggestions:

1. Pay Attention To Where It's Grown

"Rice grown in the Southeastern U.S. had the highest amount of arsenic, according to Consumer Reports, which makes sense given that this is the land where cotton was grown and arsenic was used as a pesticide for decades to combat the boll weevil.

Rice is grown in water, so the presence of arsenic in the soil can be readily transmitted. Even though they've done away with arsenic-containing pesticides in the U.S., the arsenic remains in the soil [and other arsenic-containing ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted]. Once in the soil, the arsenic can come into the roots and into the grain of the rice itself.

Rice grown in California wouldn't have the same problems — California-grown rice has much lower levels of arsenic, the studies found. And here's one instance in which buying imports is better: Thai jasmine and Indian basmati had some — but much lower — levels of arsenic (about one-half to one-third the amount)."

2. Swap In White Rice

(This pains me to write, but my kids will be happy.)

"Brown rice had much higher arsenic levels so the recommendation is to use brown rice sparingly and eat more white rice."

[The reason, says Consumer Reports is this: "Though brown rice has nutritional advantages over white rice, it is not surprising that it might have higher levels of arsenic, which concentrates in the outer layers of a grain. The process of polishing rice to produce white rice removes those surface layers, slightly reducing the total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in the grain.

In brown rice, only the hull is removed. Arsenic concentrations found in the bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain."]

3. Cook With More Water
[For brown or white rice]"...there are ways to reduce the arsenic levels. Consumers can wash the rice before they cook it and cook in extra water and then pour water off at the end of cooking. (This can remove about 30 percent of the arsenic). Consumer Reports recommends 6 cups of water to one cup of rice."

4. Vary Your Grains
"Use other grains in addition to rice and eat a variety. There can be much lower levels of arsenic in wheat and oats, quinoa, millet, amarynth...

Just like eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is protective, eating a variety of grains is protective too."

(Oh, and organic products fared no better here.)

"The application of arsenic is based on historic use of pesticides, not current use, so the arsenic in an organic product may have limits in how recently the land has been treated with pesticides, but that may not be stringent enough to protect from the historic use of arsenic...

The bottom line is that rice is a very big part of many people's diets and it plays a central role in many ethnic cuisines, like Mexican and Chinese....[But] people who consume large amounts of rice may want to take these steps...

Arsenic has been known for many years as a poison, there's no safe level. It's really a chemical that most people want to minimize."

5. Parents Of Infants Take Note

"Parents should not be serving rice cereal to their infants more than once a day on average. The infant cereals had low levels of arsenic compared to regular rice but because the body mass of the children is so much less, that's why the advice is so stringent." [And steer clear of brown rice syrup, used as a sweetener, which showed consistently high levels.]

Here's Consumer Reports on their infant cereal findings:

Worrisome arsenic levels were detected in infant cereals, typically consumed between 4 and 12 months of age.

Among the four infant cereals tested, we found varying levels of arsenic, even in the same brand. Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice cereal had one sample with the highest level of total arsenic in the category at 329 ppb, and another sample had the lowest total level in this category at 97.7 ppb. It had 0.8 to 1.3 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving.

Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice cereal had total arsenic levels ranging from 149 ppb to 274 ppb, but higher levels of inorganic arsenic per serving, from 1.7 to 2.7 micrograms.

...To reduce arsenic risks, we recommend that babies eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. And their diets should include cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic, according to federal information.

That worried mom from New York has already taken action and frankly, I'm going to follow her lead. She writes:

As for my strategy, I am planning to rinse the brown rice, serve it less frequently, and vary the grains as much as possible. I immediately ordered a bag of farro, and made soup with barley, and am planning to prepare more tabouleh. I will rely more on our standby carbs: whole wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, whole grain bread, plantains and winter squash. Maybe we'll even try quinoa again! The only problem is that as far as whole-grains go, my picky eater (my 10-year-old) only eats brown rice. But there's hope. When we switched to whole grains about two or three years ago, she swore by white rice.

If you want to learn more about arsenic, its toxicity and how it effects the human body, read the Agency For Toxic Substance and Disease Registry public health statement here.

And don't do what I did and pooh-pooh quinoa, which is on the bland side. We had an excellent side dish over the weekend: Sicilian Swiss Chard over quinoa with golden raisins and pine nuts. FB me if you want the recipe. And tell me about your strategies for dealing with this latest obstacle in providing healthy, nutritious food for your family.

This program aired on October 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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