Is Arsenic What’s in Rice?
A naturally occurring mineral with a long history as a murder weapon, Arsenic is toxic and it’s what’s in rice. Does that mean that rice is toxic? Why do we keep eating rice, considering that arsenic has been associated with lung, skin and bladder cancer, among other health concerns?
Arsenic is naturally found in the air, water and soil because it is an element that is part of the earth’s crust. The fact that it’s in rice isn’t entirely troublesome on its own. The trouble starts when arsenic appears in rice due to some kind of human activity like mining or the use of pesticides, and THAT is a problem.
Different kinds of arsenic
There are two types of arsenic: organic (in the biological sense) and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is the kind that’s dangerous and is associated with adverse health effects ― and it’s the kind that’s present in rice, which is why it may be a good idea to moderate your rice intake.
Arsenic is absorbed by the plant as it grows. Some plants absorb more than others, and rice seems to absorb the most, among commonly eaten foods.
There is even a limit on the amount of inorganic arsenic allowed in infant rice cereal – as though ANY arsenic would be acceptable, but the FDA says nothing about the amount of rice adults should eat. They simply recommend a well-balanced diet for good nutrition.
Since rice absorbs naturally-occurring arsenic from the ground, it is present in drinking water in some parts of the world at a rate that can cause cancer in 1 out of 300 people. Studies suggest that the amount found in just a half cup of rice is more than that.
Even though arsenic is found in nature and shouldn’t be very harmful in very small doses, being exposed to low doses long term could cause damage to cells. The doses found in contaminated foods are far higher than naturally-occurring arsenic.
High levels can lead to cancer of all kinds and heart disease. It is important to limit your intake of arsenic as it does not build up in the body and giving your system a break can avoid most of the side effects. (1)
Recent reports from the US Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Reports magazine and the Environmental Working Group, all focused on the worrisome amounts of arsenic in rice and popular rice-based processed foods.
So, can I still eat rice?
Here are some easy-to-use tips on how you can reduce your, and your family’s, exposure:
- Limit rice consumption. Try alternative organic grains such as quinoa, barley, grits/polenta, couscous or bulgur wheat.
The testing done by Consumer Reports confirmed that rice has much higher concentrations of arsenic than other grains, fruits and vegetables, because rice is sometimes grown in fields that have been treated with arsenic-based pesticides — but also because rice plants have a natural tendency to take up naturally occurring arsenic in the soil and water.
- Rinse rice thoroughly. Boil brown rice in a lot of water (as you do with pasta). You can lower the amount of arsenic in rice by almost 40% if you take this simple step of boiling the rice in lots of water.
- Look for alternatives to rice such as breakfast cereals, rice flour, rice pasta, rice cakes and crackers, organic, of course. Toasted oats, puffed corn or whole grains such as spelt or millet work too.
- Limit products that list rice syrup as a sweetener.
You don’t think of rice as a component of snack and nutrition bars, but a recent study by scientists at Dartmouth College found high arsenic levels in processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup, which are often found at natural food stores. Read labels to avoid this sweetener wherever possible.
Check your drinking water.
Arsenic taints drinking water in many parts of the United States. Check EWG’s Tap Water Database to see if it’s been detected in your water. If you drink well water, contact your local health department to find out if arsenic could be a problem in your well, or get it tested – it’s not expensive and it’s worth the investment.
How can I protect my kids?
- Instead of rice cereal as the first solid food for babies, try orange vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash, bananas and avocados.
- Switch to non-rice baby cereals such as oatmeal or mixed grains, or make your own by blending oats in a food processor and then cooking them with water.
- Limit tree fruits like apples and pears, and grape juices to a maximum of one-half to one cup a day. Aside from higher levels of arsenic, they are high in sugar and can crowd out other foods that provide essential nutrients.
- Avoid brown rice syrup as a sweetener in processed kids’ foods.
- Do not use rice milk as a dairy substitute for cow’s milk. Use other plant-based sources of calcium, or nut milks.
- Consumer Reports suggests that children eat a maximum of 1.25 servings of rice, rice pasta, or rice cereal per week, or one small serving of rice-based infant cereal per day.
What about organic rice?
Organically-grown and conventional rice both contain arsenic. White rice — particularly basmati, jasmine and pre-cooked “instant” rice — tends to have lower concentrations of arsenic than brown rice because arsenic accumulates in rice bran.
Rice varieties grown in California or imported from Southeast Asia are often lower in arsenic than rice grown in other parts of the U.S.
Rice is risky. Try alternative grains to keep things interesting and healthy. Millet, pasta, quinoa, oats, spelt, teff, make for some great substitutes. Yes, arsenic is what’s in rice, but you’ve got plenty of other options…!