Last week, a Consumer Reports study found “worrisome” levels of arsenic in rice. Consumer Reports studied more than 200 samples of rice and rice-containing products like infant cereals to come to their conclusions. Organic rice baby cereal, brown rice, white rice, rice cereals. There were no exceptions to the rule. Foods containing rice contained unusually high levels of arsenic.
Based on their results, they’re calling on the FDA to set appropriate standards for “safe” levels of arsenic in rice. While I wait for those results with bated breath, I have to wonder what this means for me and my family.
Are we going to stop eating rice? Are we going to eat less rice? Should we even be concerned?
Arsenic in Rice: The Study Results
After the hooplah surrounding the earlier Consumer Reports study about the high levels of arsenic levels in apple juice (and arsenic in supermarket chicken before that), we consumers became veritable experts in “organic” and “inorganic” arsenic.
Organic arsenic is the arsenic that occurs in nature and is naturally present in our food, soil, and water supplies. It may or may not be “safe” for our consumption, although most studies warn about consuming too much of it. Inorganic arsenic is a toxin that most agree is not safe at any level. It is a known carcinogen.
Inorganic arsenic has made its way into our food supply because of its routine inclusion in poultry feed, pesticides, and even fertilizers.
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. (source)
Because rice is grown submerged in water, arsenic is more easily absorbed into its root and plant system. This helps explain the higher concentrations of arsenic found in rice compared to other grains.
In general, rice grown in the southern United States has more arsenic than rice grown elsewhere. This is likely due to the long history of the agricultural use of arsenic in the South.
Also, brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. That’s because the arsenic is mostly concentrated in the bran and hull of the rice, and these parts of the rice are polished off white rice.
Arsenic in Rice: Should You Be Concerned?
Well, if you listen to industry response, the answer is “heck no!”
“These are very, very low levels,” Dr James R. Coughlin, president and founder of Coughlin & Associates, an independent toxicology consulting company for the USA Rice Federation, said. “Rice is a safe and nutritious food and in fact people who consume rice more frequently in their diets are actually healthier than other Americans.” (source)
If you listen to Consumer Reports, the answer is “yes, you should regulate your diet to limit exposure to this toxin.”
They even provided this handy chart with recommendations based on the results of their findings:
Besides limiting exposure to rice, Consumer Reports recommend preparing your rice in a more traditional manner:
You may be able to cut your exposure to inorganic arsenic in rice by rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking, using a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice for cooking and draining the excess water afterward. That is a traditional method of cooking rice in Asia. The modern technique of cooking rice in water that is entirely absorbed by the grains has been promoted because it allows rice to retain more of its vitamins and other nutrients. But even though you may sacrifice some of rice’s nutritional value, research has shown that rinsing and using more water removes about 30 percent of the rice’s inorganic arsenic content. (source)
Arsenic in Rice: My Conclusions
Rice is one of the few grains that my family regularly consumes. If you have no digestive or hormonal issues, grains can be safely consumed if you prepare them in a traditional manner.
Rather than go through the effort of sprouting, soaking, and fermenting all my grains, I opt to limit my grain consumption to the most benign of all grains — rice. Rice is relatively low in phytic acid, the anti-nutrient that blocks mineral absorption in the gut. It’s also gluten-free, so you don’t have any of the digestive issues that eating gluten-containing grains can cause in sensitive people. And, it’s a pleasant way to get resistant starch in the diet, providing a good alternative to sweet potatoes, potatoes, and beans. (Plus you can easily find and buy rice pasta, which I use to make my kiddos macaroni and cheese or quick pasta lunches.)
But now this jewel of my diet is being called toxic.
I’m not quite willing to give it up, but I will take this research to heart and limit our consumption. I’ll also try this “traditional method” of cooking rice in excess water that Consumer Reports recommends.
Giving Up Rice and Other Grains
Because my family has none of these obvious digestive or hormonal disorders, we’ve never completely given up grains. We did it as an experiment for Lent a few years back, but didn’t notice any dramatic health improvements other than a few dropped pounds.
But if you or your loved ones do suffer these grain-aggravated problems, then maybe this latest news about rice is like the straw that broke the camels back. Maybe you’re finally ready to go grain-free and see if it helps.
If that’s you, I highly recommend you check out the Go Grain-Free online course being offered by my friend Jill. She’ll hook you up with more than 150 recipes and over 80 video tutorials to help your family transition to grain-free eating — even including how to make some of your family’s favorite grain-including foods (like muffins and pizza dough) with alternative flours.
(photo by stevendepolo)