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

(Dano/flickr)

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.

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  • makeupdiva

    unfortunately with the radiation from fukishama in California I would not eat rice grown there

    • crosswind

      Great Reminder!! I will start eatnig more potatoes, quinoa and other safer gluten free grains, unless grown in India or Thailand. I have to be on McDougall diet (low fat vegan diet), becuz of a Protomyzoa Rheumatic, blood parasite that feeds off fat. my MD is finding, after 20 yrs researching, his AutoImmune patients have this protomyzoa and health improves with McDougall diet.

  • Jonathan Gilson

    Divide any parts per billion figure, shown on the actual consumer report table, by 1000,000,000 and you will see how low these arsenic levels are. The USA levels are higher than Asia. Ask Yourself wether there is actually any issue here!

  • Jonathan Gilson

    It is worth noting that the consumer report figures are listed in parts per billion.

    http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/ndwc/articles/ot/fa04/q&a.pdf.

    This links assists with putting the data into perspective. Enjoy.

  • use your brain

    If rice is so dangerous, then why isn’t there alot of sick or dead Asins, Indians and numerous other cultures who eat rice on a daily level. Think about it people have been consuming rice for eons and now some alarmists are trying to say it’s dangerous. What about apples. Their seeds have arsenic. You’d have to consume 2 bussels of just seeds to be of any harm, but let’s stop eating apples.
    GET A GRIP!!!

  • rod e cantiveros

    oh, gee…the air we breathe, the food we take, where hooked on dying with cancer…would it be safer in Mars or in Venus?

    science gives life;and at the end, it takes out life!

    such a wonder in life: once you’re so healthy; next day, your are at ICU, for others

    to see you in the chamber of death!

    enjoy life with less arsenic! be a vegetarian (with pesticides)

    or carnivore (with growth hormone) or just eat fish (with mercury)

    “i breathe my life as i enjoy the good things in my temporal quest for a happier life.”

    rod e cantiveros

  • Tortch

    Dr. Price recomends to soak grains for at least 8 hours before cooking as it was done for ceturies – http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/be-kind-to-your-grains?qh=YToyOntpOjA7czo2OiJncmFpbnMiO2k6MTtzOjU6ImdyYWluIjt9

  • kate

    what about rice milk?

  • Lucylu

    A good, common-sense post addressing an issue that has certainly been on my mind, particularly because of my high-brown-rice diet and having an infant. Thank you.

  • Johnny.W

    THis, IMO, is the greatest food emergency the USA has had, despite recalls due to salmonella, e-coli, etc. The very soil supplying a staple of human life is poisoned from human blunder and stupidity–that the practice of poisoning the soil wasn’t stopped much, much sooner. I mean, what does it take. Advice to “limit” consumption of rice is, IMO stupid. Just stop, at least until the government mandates arsenic testing–as it should for mercury in all fish produced above a certain quantity. Play it safe, avoid rice. (I love rice, BTW, and this is rotten news all around.) It’s routine to badmouth genetic modification but if rice can be “engineered” to not take up arsenic from water and soil–hey, GMO it, alter it up the wazoo, and don’t look back

  • http://www.facebook.com/arandallpacker Anita Randall-Packer

    Those suggestions do not work for anyone who is from a rice eating culture, add more water & drain it off? REALLY, who could eat that yuck. Vary you diet? That’s not an option for someone who has eaten rice 2 to 3 times a day for their whole lives.

  • JohnnyDread

    Is there any data on the amount of arsenic found in humans who eat humans?

    • MrsDahmer

      idk but, it seems theres a “danger” or “risk” in just about anything we eat now days. i bet you can google just about any food you can think of and there will be SOMETHING “unsafe” about it. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is to follow this one rule with EVERYTHING –, “ALL THINGS IN MODERATION!!” its never a good idea to do ANYTHING in excess.
      As for me, you read my mind, im going to try the cannibal diet for a while, maybe ill get kuru and laugh my way to the grave! :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/monroe.pastermack Monroe Pastermack

    Is their any data on the amount of arsenic found in humans who eat rice?

  • vicki

    “Pay attention to where it’s grown.” How do we do that? My box of Uncle Ben’s lists California, but that’s the address of the parent company, Mars. How would I know where the rice inside the box was grown?

    • mjoecups

      Don’t eat that crap. Buy real rice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.snieckus.5 David Snieckus

    I love arsenic!

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.snieckus.5 David Snieckus

    Arsenic in rice is like sodium in salt. Sodium (Na) will kill you by itself…in salt ( NaCl) or better yet….in sea salt it becomes neutralized. NaCl plus gold, arsenic, and a myriad of other macro and micro elements!
    Going down the rabbit hole and ONLY looking at one element ( arsenic or sodium or oxygen or hydrogen or carbon etc.) is science’s illogical empirical approach to understanding health.

    • ReflectivePractice

      Very Nice. Agreed.

    • Albear Town

      I would whole-heartedly agree! The American approach of analyzing everything to death takes all the joy, health, and life out of everything. Thus, we have an industrialized food system which takes natural whole foods and transmogrifies them into unnatural poisons. Why do you suppose that we have much more cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease than the rest of the world AND the rest of antiquity? Nature teaches the best lessons, but we are so fraught with our deluded minds that we miss the simplest wisdom.

  • http://twitter.com/Natures_One Nature’s One

    True to our founding principles,
    Nature’s One successfully identified a more pure source of organic brown rice
    in March, 2012. To further press our objective for the purest and best
    nutritional ingredients possible, Nature’s One worked with our supplier to
    innovate a filtration process that eliminates metalloids, such as arsenic, from
    organic brown rice syrup when present. We believe this makes organic
    brown rice syrup the purest source of carbohydrate when compared to organic
    sucrose and organic glucose syrups (also known as corn syrup).

    Baby’s Only Organic® Dairy and
    Baby’s Only Organic Dairy with DHA formulas benefit from our most advanced
    filtration process. Baby’s Only Organic Soy also benefits from the
    filtration process and will be available September 12th .
    These Nature’s One formulas are available at http://www.NaturesOneDirect.com.

  • Tim

    CORRECTION:
    White rice has the bran removed in addition to the husk. All varieties of rice (including all varieties of brown rice) have the husk removed before they are cooked or subjected to further milling to remove bran and/or germ.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/rzimmerman Rachel Zimmerman

      Thanks. Fixed. RZ

  • Tox Talk

    Arsenic is a NATURALLY occuring element that is present in ALL food and water. I looked at the data (I have a Ph.D. in Toxicology) and do not see anything disturbing about the distribution of the values. The information about the source being arsenical pesticides is FALSE….the information about arsenic being taken up in wet/saturated environments is TRUE. As long as you keep your child’s diet varied, there is nothing to get in a tizzy about (arsenic is efficiently METABOLIZED by the body and efficiently excreted). Don’t believe the hype about cancer either, the vast majority of epidemiological studies show that arsenic does not cause an increase in the cancer rate. New England has a high level of arsenic in its drinking water and there is no statistical increase in the rates of cancer for skin, lung, bladder, etc. If you insist on worrying, worry about having enough money to buy food when the 16 trillion dollar deficit/unfunded liability bomb goes off around 2014.

    • king

      Oh, its NATURALLY occurring, so it can’t be bad for you. Got it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/frank.simmons.3511 Frank Simmons

        @ king, you are clearly an idiot. Tox brings science, you bring nothing but emotion and bluster. It is dopes like you that try to cure cancer with green juice and a positive mental attitude. Get empirical.

        empirical |emˈpirikəl|
        adjective
        based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic

      • rocketride

        Tox Talk isn’t saying that at all, but naturally occurring toxins have generally been in the environment long enough for us to have some natural defenses against them in small to moderate concentrations.

        And the concentrations of Arsenic in rice aren’t all that high.

        Frankly, I’d be more worried about heavy metals. Those didn’t and don’t occur in nature as commonly as Arsenic did and consequently aren’t handled as well.

        And even more worried about toxins that didn’t exist in nature at all. There were no polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for instance, in the environment until we started making the stuff.

        Our ancestors have been dealing with arsenic since they were single
        cells in the oceans. They all managed to leave offspring. (or we
        wouldn’t be here.) You’ll probably live to a ripe old age, even if you
        keep eating rice.

        Carcinogenicity studies usually involve huge doses of the suspect toxins. Does anyone here remember the sorts of doses involved in the cyclamates and saccharin studies?

        Which isn’t to say that naturally occurring toxins can’t be a problem. Arsenic is direly poisonous in sufficient concentration. This toxicity comes from the fact that it is directly below Phosphorus on the periodic table. The columns on the table are comprised of elements that have similar chemical behavior. Phosphorus is involved in just about everything a cell does. DNA contains Phosphorus, the molecules that cells use to fuel enzymatic reactions contain Phosphorus. Arsenic can chemically “fit” in many of these molecules where a Phosphorus atom would go, but the Arsenic-substituted version won’t work properly because Arsenic atoms are larger than Phosphorus atoms and the shape/size of the resulting molecule is wrong to fit the enzymes involved and will “jam the machinery”.

      • Overworked

        Did you ignore everything about the data? Are there cases of arsenic poisoning from rice or is this a fuss about minuscule levels? Do you have any data on deaths from arsenic in rice?!!! Or do you just have sarcasm?

    • king

      Like lead and radon.. ;-)

    • fred

      Tox – I read there is a difference between naturally occurring arsenic and the arsenic that is present in pesticide. Can you comment on this?

    • Johnny.W

      According to the article in Consumer Reports, the rice has high levels of INORGANIC arsenic, which is NOT excreted thru natrual processes. Why bring up the “16 trillion dollar deficit/unfunded liability bomb” ? Live long and prosper.

      • ReflectivePractice

        I understand your question questioning the remark about the “16 trillion dollar deficit/unfunded liability bomb.” My silly thoughts are saying, why not take advantage of the findings, and grow rice that is verified as removed from a arsenic growing environment. Amazing that we send “Rovers” to MARS and we can’t spend that money on cleaning and preserving OUR PLANET. But I do love what we’ve done in space exploration. Guess I’m a hypocrite. Love Science

    • anonymous

      I believe that inorganic arsenic is NOT natural…

    • Corinna

      thank you, @b47cdc410fd4597e97a9c113b65cddd6:disqus Reading what you wrote made me feel a LOT better after reading this article.

      • mjoecups

        Too bad he’s full of it.

    • Mr_John_Doe

      How does anybody know whether or not you have a PhD in Toxicology? The
      reality is that other people with PhD’s have warned about arsenic in
      rice, especially in the South East and you bring up information about
      natural arsenic when the article clearly states: “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, don’t believe the IARC and Consumer Reports (a consumer agency that accepts no commercial funding or advertising)… believe a guy on the internet that calls himself “Tax Talk” and offers no evidence, and even gets the story wrong (i.e., inorganic arsenic vs. naturally occurring arsenic). On top of all this, in a story about arsenic in the fool supply, you bring up a partisan issue on the debt.

    • EmilySwei

      Thank you so much for writing this! I have heard that inflated and/or false claims can be made about products’ lack of safety, and in some cases, that info is used as a fear tactic to encourage consumers to buy certain products. Any thoughts about the claims that BPA used in plastics causes cancer and BPA-free food containers?

      I’ll add this information about brown rice arsenic levels into my “tool belt” and am thankful for it as I’m seeking to be a well-informed, TRUTH-informed consumer.

      Side note: my uncle has a Toxicology Doctorate as well. Not an easy degree to earn. Well done!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Imani-Burrell/100002259534084 Imani Burrell

    Get grains out of your diet. Let the animals designed to eat grains, eat and digest the grain, then eat the animal and you’ll get the benefit of the grain. That said, if you do eat meat, animals that are herbavorous should be grass fed not corn fed. Terrible grammar, but you get the point.

    • jefe68

      Great idea. Eat a lot of meat so you end up with heart disease, colon cancer, or a stroke.

      • AncestralDiet

        Eating meat does not give you heart disease, colon cancer or stroke. Not drinking adequate amount of water (not tea, not coffee, & no added lemon or other flavors) does.

        • Tim

          I’m sure that you have a vast collection of clinical data to back up your claims.

          • http://www.facebook.com/frank.simmons.3511 Frank Simmons

            precisely, see @ king above
            Get empirical.

            empirical |emˈpirikəl|
            adjective
            based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic

          • Isabel C

            Frank, you don’t need to insult people to express your point of few!

          • Isabel C

            correction, View!

        • fred

          Ha – all that meat would be lovely, except for the way they treat the animals – and what about the arsenic they feed the chickens? Sigh. We’re all screwed!

      • Never-too-late

        Oops, don’t get stuck in the tattered and dusty food pyramid. Watch for Denise Minger’s “Death by Food Pyramid,” out sometime next year. In the meantime, check out Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet’s updated “Perfect Health Diet.” Both Denise and the Jaminets have websites. Check them out and update yourself.

    • rocketride

      Depends on whether the animal stores the toxin in question in its fat tissue, doesn’t it?