My husband, John, is visiting the blog today with this informative article. ~ Barbara
You betcha! (Sorry, I recently watched the movie Fargo.) But, shockingly, yes, all rice contains arsenic. It’s a fact. Unfortunately, on a gluten-free diet, rice is often used as a substitute for wheat. So how cautious do we need to be when eating rice?
Switching To Gluten Free Rice Products
Remember the first time you heard those words? “Because you have celiac disease (CD), you can no longer consume food or drinks that contain wheat or gluten. That means things like bread, pasta, and pizza.” If you are like me, you probably said something like, ”No bread, pasta or pizza, ever, yeah right. That’s not happening.” Well, if you have CD and want to heal and avoid future complications, it has to happen.
Again, if you are like me when you went GF, you simply mimicked your previous diet with products that substituted gluten with some non-gluten ingredient. Instead of eating wheat pasta, for example, I simply switched to rice pasta. Granted, it did not taste exactly the same, but it was ok. I could live with it. At least it was not destroying my gut.
But was this diet really good for me? In one sense it was because I was no longer eating gluten. However, many of the new products I was eating contained rice. This meant I had drastically increased my consumption of rice. Was that a good thing for my health?
2012 Consumer Report On Rice
In 2012, eyebrows were raised when a Consumer Reports (CR) study revealed that rice and numerous familiar rice products contained arsenic, many at particularly high levels.
CR produced a detailed list of how much arsenic is contained in many rice products. You can see the list here.
To put these numbers in perspective, CR noted,
“The standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). Keep in mind: That level is twice the 5 ppb that the EPA originally proposed and that New Jersey actually established. Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.”
This suggests that compared to the allowable arsenic content of drinking water, the arsenic concentration in all types of rice and rice products is significant.
In September 2013, the U. S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) performed their own independent study on the concentration of arsenic in rice. Their results were similar to those found by CR.
Thus, two independent studies confirmed that all rice contains arsenic.
What Is Arsenic?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring toxic element found in soil, rocks, water, food and air. It may also enter an ecosystem from human sources such as contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides.
Arsenic in high concentrations is a known poison. Remember the movie Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant? Arsenic, however, naturally occurs in two forms: organic and inorganic. The inorganic form is much more toxic than the organic form. Long-term exposure to it has been linked to higher rates of lung, bladder, and skin cancers as well as heart disease. Arsenic, therefore, is something we want to avoid if possible.
Dietary Sources of Arsenic
Small concentrations of arsenic are present in almost all foods and drinks. However, higher amounts of arsenic are found in the following food sources:
- Contaminated drinking water (inorganic arsenic) usually in Asia and South America.
- Fish, shrimp and shellfish may contain high amounts of the less toxic organic arsenic.
- Mussels and some types of seaweed may contain inorganic arsenic.
- Rice and rice-based products (inorganic and organic arsenic).
Why Is There Arsenic In Rice?
Since arsenic naturally occurs in soil, rocks, and water, all plants may contain arsenic. Rice, however, seems to have a greater affinity to absorb arsenic than other plants. Thus, it has greater concentrations of arsenic.
Rice grown in paddies also tends to have higher concentrations of arsenic. This is probably a result of the rice being grown in flooded conditions.
Rice may also contain higher amounts of arsenic if it has been grown in areas that have been previously contaminated by arsenic through industrial pollution and decades of agricultural use of arsenic-based pesticides. This is especially true of rice grown in certain areas of the southern U. S. (e.g., Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas) where cotton crops were previously treated with arsenic containing pesticides. Rice from these areas generally exhibits a higher concentration of inorganic arsenic.
How Much Arsenic Is Too Much? Are There Guidelines?
As of yet, no U.S. or E.U. health agencies have imposed limits on how much arsenic can be allowed in most foods, including rice. In 2013, the FDA did set an action level of 10 ppb of arsenic in apple juice.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set a standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion. Public water systems must comply with this standard.
In 2014, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN announced guidelines for inorganic arsenic in rice. They are 200 ppb for white rice and 400 ppb for brown rice. In 2015, the WHO proposed lowering the limit of brown rice to 350 ppb.
The reason for the difference between white and brown rice is that arsenic is concentrated in the bran of brown rice. In white rice, the bran is removed in the milling process.
Short Term Effects of Arsenic Consumption
In 2013, the FDA stated,
“While levels varied significantly depending on the product tested, agency scientists determined that the amount of detectable arsenic is too low in the rice and rice product samples to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.”
Consider, however, a 2011 Dartmouth University study performed on 229 pregnant women where some were asked to eat a half-cup of rice a day while others had none. Researchers then tested their urine and found that the women who had consumed a half-cup of rice for just two days had 53 percent more arsenic in their urine than women who didn’t.
This result is significant because researchers noted that “arsenic exposure during pregnancy is a public health concern due to potential health risks to the fetus.”
However, they then concluded that, “while this study reveals the potential for exposure to arsenic from rice, much additional research is needed before we can determine if there are actual health impacts from this source of exposure.”
The researchers admit that arsenic is a cause of potential risks to the fetus and rice consumed by the mother increases arsenic exposure to the fetus. However, they are not completely sure if there is a risk to the fetus. Researchers do admit that there is need for further study in this area.
The Long Term Effects of Arsenic Consumption
The FDA’s statement on the affects of arsenic exposure did not address the concern of the long-term effects. Remember that arsenic is a known carcinogen. The FDA does state, however, that they are in the process of analyzing the long-term health effects of arsenic.
At the present time, though, nobody really knows exactly how much rice would have to be consumed over the long-term in order for there to be harmful heath effects from its inorganic arsenic content.
World Health Organization (WHO) food safety coordinator Angelika Tritscher notes, “The outcome of the assessments was that you cannot define a safe exposure level.”
The FDA’s Advice On Eating Rice
Concerning the consumption of rice, the FDA advises that people “Eat a well-balanced diet. All consumers, including pregnant women, infants and children, are encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.”
The FDA’s statement is not exactly detailed. However, they do seem to be implying that one should not consume an excess amount of rice.
Who Should Be Particularly Concerned About Eating Rice?
The inorganic arsenic content in rice may be a concern for those who rely on rice as a main staple of their diet. This includes:
- Those who consume an Asian-based diet where rice is included.
- Those on a gluten free diet.
Others who should be cautious in consuming large quantities of rice include:
- Children (because of their small body size. See here and here.)
- Infants who consume formula with brown rice syrup. See here
- Pregnant women because of possible effects on the developing fetus.
Should Rice Be Eliminated Completely From Diets?
Considering that rice is a staple food in large parts of the world, this may not even be possible. Researchers point out that the possible disastrous nutritional effects of eliminating rice from the diet may outweigh long-term concerns.
However, what about the rest of us? Should we eliminate it completely? Of course, that is a personal decision. If you do choose to eat rice, researchers in the field of food safety suggest the following:
- Limit your overall consumption of rice. Those on a GF diet can substitute rice flour with other types of flours (sorghum, millet, quinoa, certified gluten free oat, amaranth, tapioca, potato starch, etc.). For example, choose corn grits over hot rice cereal.
- Eat white rice as opposed to brown rice because it contains less arsenic.
- Choose aromatic rices like basmati or jasmine as they contain less arsenic.
- Wash rice thoroughly until it runs clear and boil it with more water than recommended. This could remove up to 50% of the arsenic content. See here & here. A ratio of rice to water of 1:6 is recommended. Cooking it “pasta style” is another suggested method. These cooking methods may, however, lower the nutritional value of the rice.
- Choose rice from California as opposed to the south central United States.
Barbara and I don’t eat a lot of rice. We don’t need the extra carbs. If I happen to want it every now and then, I will eat some. I will be sure though to follow the guidelines above. Since we eat few processed foods, the rice content in these products is not a concern for us. Yes, I no longer eat any bread, pasta or pizza at all. I conquered my cravings.
Nicole and the boys consume rice a little bit more often than us. They may enjoy a couple of servings per week. They need much more carbs than we do. The rice we have found with one of the lowest arsenic contents is white basmati rice from Lundberg Farms. Its arsenic levels have consistently tested well under WHO standards. See here.
I hope you have found this information helpful. Do you have thoughts on rice? Have you found a favorite rice with a low arsenic content? Please share it with us.
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