FDA’s Reassurance On Arsenic In Rice Not So Reassuring

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and colleagues visited research facilities and rice farms in California on Sept. 4-5, 2013 in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the presence of arsenic in rice. Photo: United States Government Work/flickr

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and colleagues visited research facilities and rice farms in California on Sept. 4-5, 2013 in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the presence of arsenic in rice.
Photo: United States Government Work/flickr

I was a little confused last week when the FDA issued what was portrayed as a reassuring update on levels of arsenic in rice and rice products. After analyzing more than 1,300 rice-containing foods, the agency said, essentially, that the arsenic in rice won’t kill you, at least not today. The headline in The New York Times mirrored most of the media coverage: “No Immediate Risk Found In Arsenic Levels in Rice,” it said.

OK, but what about last year’s Consumer Reports investigation (which the FDA confirmed) that showed “worrisome levels” of arsenic in rice, notably brown rice, in common food products including  ”organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice [and] white rice”? Consumer Reports noted that “arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life.”

When I read the updated FDA materials, including an FAQ for consumers and a blog by FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who went on a fact-finding mission and visited with U.S. rice growers, it became clear that we should still be concerned about arsenic in our rice. The key point in this new flurry of agency news? “We still need to better understand long-term health risks,” said FDA spokesperson Shelley Burgess in an email.

Indeed, since we really don’t know the long term health risks of arsenic-containing rice at this point, the FDA’s takeaway message is basically that we should vary our diet; and when it comes to grains, learn to love barley, quinoa, oats, wheat, etc., and refrain from daily rice consumption.

You can look at the data yourself regarding specific arsenic levels, but here’s the gist (and remember these are averages and, as the FDA notes, a number of products did have levels of inorganic arsenic above 7 micrograms per serving):

Among the rice grain categories, the average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving, with instant rice at the low end of the range and brown rice at the high end. Among the rice product categories, of which there was a wide variety, the average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 0.1 to 6.6 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving, with infant formula at the low end of the range and rice pasta at the high end. These amounts of detectable arsenic are not high enough to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.

In any event, a number of products tested did have levels of inorganic arsenic above 7 micrograms per serving. (The rice product with the highest level of inorganic arsenic per serving was a hot/ready-to-eat rice bran cereal, which was found to have 30 micrograms per serving of inorganic arsenic.)

So what does this mean? A smart analysis comes from a recent MinnPost Earth Journal piece by Ron Meador, headlined “Arsenic in rice: New FDA test results are confirmation, not rebuttal.” It begins by recalling the Consumer Reports findings:

That was the report, you may remember, which showed that single servings of some brands of rice and rice-based food products exceeded the arsenic limit that New Jersey applies to a liter of drinking water.

That food-to-water comparison is not perfect, but it’s apt enough and, unfortunately, the best we have because the U.S. has set no national standard, yet, for arsenic in food. But there is one for inorganic arsenic in drinking water, and it’s 10 parts per billion, which happens to be exactly twice the science-based standard originally favored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It also happens to be twice the New Jersey standard, which followed the EPA recommendation of 5 ppb, or 5 micrograms per liter.

Then he quotes a Wired story by Deborah Blum that raises several excellent points:

–Study after study has demonstrated that arsenic levels in rice are not going to be toxic in the short-term, so the heart of Friday’s news isn’t really news at all.
–On the question of risk from long-term exposures, however, “the really serious work has yet to be done.”
–Because that “bigger message [was] somewhat unfortunately buried” in Friday’s announcement, it’s fair to take the overall announcement “as a deliberate move to more loudly reassure” not only a possibly worried public but also “the U.S. rice industry, which has expressed growing unhappiness over the arsenic story.”

I am genuinely glad to see the FDA tackling this complicated and important public health issue. I could wish that the agency had done a better job of explaining the work. I heard the same reaction from the toxicologists I talked to today – their worry that people in the high risk groups would suddenly believe there was no risk at all.

“That message needs to be retooled,” one told me. “It sounds like the FDA missed the point,” agreed another. “It’s a dodge,” said yet another. “The issue is long term exposure and the surprisingly serious and widespread health issues now clearly associated with this exposure.”

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  • SKJ

    Was hoping to hear better news for Celiac Sprue victims.
    Nearly every GF product contains rice though I love quinoa, amaranth,
    Buckwheat, etc. What is good fiber to put on cereal w/out using rice
    Bran?

    • Chef Mary

      If you enjoy cereal, a great source of fiber to add to it is fresh or dried fruit. If that feels too sweet for you, it’s the fault of the cereal not of the fruit. If you tolerate certified GF oats, which most celiacs and gluten intolerant folks do, use GF steel cut oats or granola made from GF rolled oats instead of more highly processed breakfast cereals. Don’t like the bought granolas? It’s easy to make your own. Use any granola recipe and simply replace the oats with GF ones. Other great sources of fiber are vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Try soaking and/or grinding the nuts and seeds to make them easier to digest fully. A fantastic breakfast is heating up leftover veggies from the night before into an omelette or scramble. Serve with heated up leftover potatoes. More satisfying than cereal, and you’ll stay full longer. Try sweet potatoes and squashes as your starch with dinner sometimes instead of rice or other grain based items. Instead of using a low-nutrition packaged GF flour blend, sub just buckwheat flour (when the flavor is appropriate, as with gingerbread, banana, chocolate, and cinnamon baked goods or pancakes) or make your own blend with flours of millet, sorghum, coconut, buckwheat, and starches of tapioca, arrowroot, and potato. All the commercial blends are high in corn and rice because they are cheap and plentiful, but millet and sorghum flours will change your life. Mix it up – eat different fruits and veggies, both starchy and non-starchy. Include whatever you’re not sensitive to – bananas, avocados, mangos, cranberries, coconut, apricots, pears, peppers, salad greens, cauliflower, carrots, celery, beets, onions, cooked kale and broccoli, you get the idea. Instead of lasagna noodles, or maybe as half the noodles in a lasagna, try thinly slliced planks of butternut squash. It’s great with a red, green, or white sauce.

  • curiousinNC

    A question in search of an answer: are the high levels of arsenic in rice and rice products peculiar to rice grown in the United States. If that is not the case then should not the people of foreign countries who largely subsist on rice not be long dead from arsenic poisoning?

  • dust truck

    Liver cancer is many times higher among Asians than any demographic in the world. What do Asians eat more than most other demographics? Hmmm. Might be a starting point for researchers to investigate long-term effects of arsenic.

    • A.AA

      Pickled stuff, it’s been already researched :) And if you look at the FDA report US brown rices has highest levels of contamination. Most people in other parts of the world eat white rice and many other rinse it half way through cooking.

      • dust truck

        cool. It’s funny, in the 3 months since I wrote that comment I read about the affect of pickled stuff on cancer too. Oh well, we all learn.

  • amfriedman

    Regarding the source of the inorganic arsenic contamination of our rice supply, from the Consumer Reports brief. Not sure why other reports don’t mention this, which is the very root of the problem:
    “Though arsenic can enter soil or water due to weathering of arsenic-containing minerals in the earth, humans are more to blame than Mother Nature for arsenic contamination in the U.S. today, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic, and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960s. Residues from the decades of use of lead-arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.”

    • james

      Is there an explanation why the rice is more contaminated than the wheat, barley and quinoa?

      • Crissy

        Rice is grown in flooded fields and the minerals are released for the rice to take up easily.

  • amfriedman

    “Vary our diet” to other grains is a sleight-of-hand tactic to frame a worrisome threat to our health as a prompt to eat better by diversifying our palette. If there is any agency that should regulate vigorously, it is the FDA, as it is charged with the highest responsibility — protecting our lives and our health. Instead of this drip of limp platitudes, the FDA should be shutting down rice farms and warning consumers to avoid rice until the industry sorts this out. Why is it shoestring groups like Consumer Reports that work with fervor? Give these guys the corner office at the FDA.

  • Mama worried about rice flour

    “Indeed, since we really don’t know the long term health risks of
    arsenic-containing rice at this point, the FDA’s takeaway message is
    basically that we should vary our diet; and when it comes to grains,
    learn to love barley, quinoa, oats, wheat, etc., and refrain from daily
    rice consumption.” All very well, unless your child is allergic to wheat (and the barley and rye that typically go along with that), then it becomes much, much more complicated.

    • gmacookie

      Haven’t people all over the world been eating rice since, like 2500 B.C.

      • Lorie Anderson Poulson

        Yes, but the pesticides didn’t exist back then and that’s where the problem started.

    • dust truck

      Quinoa. It’s got wayyyyy better nutrients than rice anyway but can be served up in nearly the same way that rice can be.

      • Mama worried about rice flour

        Love it. But my kid won’t eat it. (My bad. Should have introduced it earlier.) And what I really worry about is all the rice flour in the gluten-free products I buy by necessity: crackers, pasta, pancake mix, etc etc. I try to go with oat flour or something else whenever I can, but it’s much harder to find unless you have time to bake everything yourself.

        • dust truck

          Yeah, I’ve got the same problem. ;-) Kids…

        • debraesq

          Can you sneak it in blending it with rice little by little until he or she develops a taste?

        • Chef Mary

          Quinoa is not your only alternative. Sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squashes, buckwheat (either as the whole grain, actually a pseudograin not a true grain, or as the flour in baked goods), and other starchy fruits and vegetables can provide much of the starch your growing child needs for energy. Increase the starchy veggies and you’ll find you don’t really miss the grainy ones nearly as much as you think you will. I’m gluten free and while I’m a professional chef, the iropny is that I don’t have an enormous amount of time to cook at home. Even so, most baking is not as time-consuming or difficult as it seems. Most GF baked goods on the market are flat-out terrible and super expensive, but you can make better ones yourself pretty easily. Use straight buckwheat flour in muffins and cookies in the ginger/cinnamon/banana/chocolate flavor family and they will taste amazing. I’ve substituted buckwheat flour for all purpose flour and for whole wheat flour in regular recipes, and they often work quite well or just need a splash of water. You can also make your own GF flour blend and just keep it in the fridge for baking. Then you don’t have to measure every single time, which is a pain. Blend sorghum, millet, buckwheat, coconut flours and arrowroot, tapioca, and potato starches. Equal parts of everything except half as much on the coconut flour. Now you have a simple, basic all purpose flour blend that subs in most cookies and muffins. Use that as a base for homemade pancake mix and you can’t go wrong. For pizzas and tortillas where you need more stretch, you’ll want to use a little xanthan gum if you tolerate it, but it’s actually unnecessary in most muffins and quickbreads. It is used so widely commercially and in recipes you find online, but I find I can either skip it or cut it in half in all recipes except pizza and flour tortillas. For variety, find recipes with almond flour or coconut flour if your family tolerates them. Almond flour is surprisingly forgiving. Coconut flour recipes need eggs and a LOT of liquid to work right, so don’t be alarmed by how strange the recipes may seem at first.

          • Rosemary Irvin

            ? So the flour proportion is: 1 sorghum + 1 millet + 1 buckwheat + 1/2 coconut + 1 arrowroot + 1 tapioca + 1 potato?

          • Chef Mary

            Yes. That works perfectly, but you can absolutely play with it and create your own. (I use a different balance for yeasted and savory doughs than for muffins and quickbreads, and then cookies are a whole other thing.) Watch your liquids; coconut is thirsty so you may need a little more liquid in your recipe and GF flours need a little more liquid in general than wheat flour in order to get a great result. Let it absorb for a few minutes to get a sense of how it’s going to behave. A lot of recipes are super precise about amounts of each flour, but I find that having a good sense of how they interact and how they’re supposed to feel is more valuable. Important proportions to watch include the amount of fat, the leavening, and the acid/base balance; but hydration is quite variable depending on many factors including the season and how humid your kitchen is.