This was all over the news a few months ago, but in case you missed it, Consumer Reports published a report in November 2012 showing surprisingly high levels of arsenic in dozens of brands of rice and rice products. This is not good news for people who eat a gluten-free diet, or for people who just plain eat a lot of rice.
Arsenic is a chemical element that exists naturally in the earth’s crust. It is toxic to humans, affecting the nerves, heart, and blood vessels, and is a known carcinogen. Arsenic is nothing new– it has been around for the duration of our evolutionary history. But all of the human activities of the past few centuries– farming, mining, construction– have disturbed the ground and allowed higher levels of arsenic to seep into our soil and water. Arsenic is also found in many pesticides, which is why it ends up in even higher concentrations on rice farms.
The Food and Drug Administration currently does not have any restrictions on arsenic levels in food, however there is a limit for the maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water. This is currently set at 10 parts per billion (ppb), although the Environmental Protection Agency originally requested it be set at 5 ppb. Consumer Reports says,
“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 is scary, especially when you consider that people on a gluten-free diet and those who eat traditional cultural diets which rely heavily upon rice are going to have way more than one serving of rice a day.
Now, all of the articles I’ve read on this subject have been quick to point out that there haven’t yet been any studies published proving that higher levels of rice consumption leads to health drawbacks. But it’s pretty obvious that’s because no one knew about the high levels of arsenic until now. It’s not as if there have been any studies proving that high levels of rice consumption doesn’t have any health consequences. I would bet money that there are researchers submitting grant proposals right now for funding to examine this very issue.
Until those studies start to be published, I think it’s best that people don’t make rice a cornerstone of their diet. Here are some of the best pieces of advice that I’ve gathered from various articles on how to deal with this issue.
- Limit Rice Consumpion. Consumer Reports suggests that adults eat no more than 1.5 cups of cooked rice per week, and kids no more than 1 cup. Honestly, if I had kids of my own, they wouldn’t be getting any rice until at least the age of 10. Even small amounts of a toxin are a big deal when they’re in a smaller body.
- Eat a variety of foods. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement, “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition, but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.” While I think Ms. Hamburg may have been downplaying the potential risks of rice, she is right that the best approach is to eat a variety of foods, and that includes where those foods are grown. We never really know what gets into our food, even when it is grown on an organic farm (acid rain, anyone?) so it can’t hurt to switch up which company you buy your food from. In case there are contamination issues at a particular farm, shipping truck, or warehouse, you’re just kind of lowering your odds of being exposed to more chemicals over time by switching up what you eat. Not only should we be eating a variety of different foods, but we should be buying a variety of brands and switching it up. In other words, you shouldn’t just buy one brand of pasta that you’ve decided you like and eat it for your entire life. Better to rotate brands.
- Choose white rice over brown. Unfortunately, Consumer Reports found that brown rice contained higher levels of arsenic than white rice. This was true for every brand they tested. This is because much of the arsenic collects in the outer shell of the rice grain. This outer shell contains the extra nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice. When you remove the shell from brown rice to make white rice, you are removing a lot of the arsenic. (Unfortunately, you are also removing a lot of the nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice).
- Avoid rice grown in the US South. According to Consumer Reports, rice grown in different areas is likely to have different levels of arsenic. In general, rice grown in the US South tends to have higher levels of the toxin because the rice is grown in a lot of areas that were once cotton farms. Those areas were heavily sprayed with arsenic-containing pesticides to combat the boll-weevil.
- Choose aromatic rice. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Imported basmati and jasmine rices showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as regular rices grown in the Southern U.S.”
- Aromatic rice grown in Bangladesh has been shown to have markedly low levels of arsenic. Of course, it’s not so simple as walking into a supermarket and finding “low arsenic Bangladeshi rice” on the shelf, but maybe it will be in the future.
- Wash rice thoroughly. Several of the articles I found mentioned this. Apparently, the FDA has found that washing rice thoroughly can reduce arsenic levels by 50-60%. The Chigago Tribune quotes Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who explains that he cooks and drains rice similar to pasta. “‘We say to use about 6 parts water to 1 part rice… And then drain off the water after it’s done.'”
- Remember the other gluten-free grains. There are lots of other yummy grains out there… at least, they’re yummy when you cook them right. Some good choices are potatoes, corn, oats (the ones that are specifically labelled gluten-free) and buckwheat. Yes, buckwheat is gluten-free. Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, order buckwheat pad thai (aka pad thai soba)… it’s so amazing.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Hope this article was helpful!
Rice photo courtesy of sweetbeatandgreenbean on Flickr.