Arsenic in Rice--Enough to Cause Illness?

RiceSeems strange that rice--usually the first solid food we feed to babies, often the first solid food we turn to after a bout of diarrhea--is now being accused of containing harmful levels of inorganic arsenic.  High levels of inorganic arsenic have been accused of causing various types of cancer, some chronic illnesses, and childhood developmental problems, but some say that more research is needed to confirm these connections to rice. Meanwhile, the FDA is being urged to set limits on allowable amounts of arsenic in foods; the response, in a nutshell, has been, "Not yet." 


It's not surprising that there is arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a chemical element (a heavy metal) that is present in the environment from both natural and human sources.  These sources include, says the FDA, "erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides."


Rice is not the only food that contains arsenic. All plants pick it up. Arsenic is present in grains, fruits (and therefore fruit juices), and vegetables. It's absorbed into plants from the soil and water. However, rice takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains.  Why?  Rice is grown in water, in flooded fields. According to a Dartmouth University researcher, the rice plant may absorb more arsenic because it mistakes it for silica, which it needs "to help it stand up in water-logged soil."  As a result, rice provides 17% of a person's dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic.  That puts rice in 3rd place, behind fruits and fruit juices (18%) and vegetables (24%).  


What's big news now is that the arsenic levels in rice are high enough to have been considered worrisome, according to recent studies conducted by the FDA, Dartmouth University, the Illinois Attorney General's Office, and Consumer Reports magazine. Activist groups are urging the government to set upper limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in food. (Now, there are no such limits on most foods.)  The FDA's response is that it has insufficient scientific information to do this: "There is an absence of the necessary scientific data that shows a causal relationship between those who consume higher levels of rice and rice products and the type of illnesses usually associated with arsenic. However, we are continuing to study this."


 The FDA is beginning its investigation by sampling about 1,200 types of rice and rice products. On September 19, the FDA released preliminary results on nearly 200 rice and rice products, including information on the amount of inorganic arsenic per serving.  (To see this list, click here.  Of greatest interest to the average consumer is probably the column furthest to the right, which lists amounts of arsenic per serving.)  The inorganic forms of arsenic are the ones that have been associated with skin, bladder, and lung cancers and heart disease, though there is now concern that the organic forms may also cause illness. The average levels of inorganic arsenic in the product results just released ranged from 3.5 - 6.7 micrograms per serving.  A sample of long- grain brown rice came out highest at 10.5. (Note: A microgram is one millionth of a gram.)


Rice and rice products turn up in an amazing number of foods. The preliminary posted data by the FDA includes various types of rice (long-grain white rice, brown rice, basmati, non-basmati, etc.), rice cereals (puffed, hot, infant), rice cakes, and rice milk.  Future FDA data will cover rice crackers, rice drinks, rice wine, rice-marshmallow squares, and breakfast and granola bars.  Of great concern is the amount of arsenic being fed to babies in the traditional first solid food--infant rice cereal. 


There's also brown rice syrup, widely used in organic foods as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup.  It's used in organic infant formula.  One of the infant formulas tested by Dartmouth University researchers had twice the inorganic arsenic allowed in drinking water, according to EPA standards.  Organic cereal bars and energy drinks also tested very high.


According to Yahoo! News, a study published last year showed that people who eat more rice have higher levels of arsenic in their systems.  Furthermore, eating slightly more than 1/2 cup of cooked rice gives a person the same amount of arsenic that would be in a liter (34 oz.) of water containing the maximum allowable amount by federal limit.


If all this sounds scary, here's some calming information from the same Yahoo! article: toxicologist Christopher States says that the levels of arsenic in rice are so small that a person would have to eat a "ton" of rice to consume enough to increase the risk of cancer. Now that researchers are attaching exact numbers to arsenic quantity in rice and rice products, we need to find out what these numbers mean in terms of human health or illness. Are we being poisoned by polluted rice or merely beaten to death by a wet noodle? 


What's the response to arsenic in food in other countries?  The European Union has not set limits for arsenic content in foods.  However, in China, there is a maximum safe level for inorganic arsenic in rice, which, according to the website Food Product Design, encourages farmers to cultivate strains of rice that absorb less arsenic. 


Although the government is being urged by Consumer Reports, the Illinois Attorney General, many physicians, and activist groups to set limits on how much arsenic is allowable in foods, it seems that the FDA would first like answers to these questions:  How much arsenic is in approximately 1,200 rice and rice products?  Is there scientific evidence showing that high levels of arsenic in rice actually increase the risks of some cancers and other diseases?  If so, how much arsenic must be consumed to create this risk?  Until the government has these answers, we may not get a specific arsenic limit set on foods.  However, at this point, the FDA is urging people to vary their diets, implied advice to eat less rice and fewer rice products.


Consumer Reports studied about 200 types of rice and rice products and is publishing the results in a lengthy article in its November 2012 issue. The article is already posted online. The magazine's figures on the quantity of arsenic in various products and the figures published by the FDA are quite close. However, unlike the FDA, Consumer Reports has several specific recommendations for lowering arsenic consumption. Here are some of them:


- Rinse rice before cooking it.  Rinsing it-- using a ratio of 6 cups of water to1cup of rice--will remove about 30% of the inorganic arsenic. Yes, you'll also lose some of the nutrients, but it's a favorable trade-off.


- Limit consumption of rice; vary your grains.  Wheat and oats, though not arsenic-free, tend to contain less arsenic than rice.  Limit children's rice consumption to about a quarter cup of uncooked rice a week and adults to a half cup. 


- Wash vegetables--especially potatoes--very well.


- Test your water.  If your water doesn't come from a public water system, be sure to have it tested for both arsenic and lead. 


- Limit your children's consumption of fruit juices that contain arsenic, such as apple juice and grape juice.  Some pediatricians recommend that babies under the age of 6 months should not be given juice at all, that children up to age 6 have no more than 4-6 oz. per day, and that older children be limited to 8-12 oz. per day. 


Some doctors and scientists agree with the FDA's point that we don't know yet what effect the arsenic in rice and other foods actually has on the human body.  Others believe that, despite uncertainty, it's a good idea to be cautious and curtail consumption of arsenic. After all, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has listed inorganic arsenic as a carcinogen, and research has shown that arsenic from water can cause liver, kidney, and other cancers.  Note: While consuming large amounts of inorganic arsenic is widely considered a health risk, the jury is still out on the possibility of health risks from organic arsenic.  More research is needed on both types.


It would be wonderful if, instead of drastically limiting rice and rice products in out diets, we could just get rid of the arsenic.  The Consumer Reports article tells of one such effort that seems to be successful.  Nature's One, the company that produced the first organic baby formula, has found the least arsenic-contaminated rice (grown outside the U.S.) and introduced a new filtration process to remove the arsenic from the brown rice syrup.  The result: the levels of arsenic in the new product were either undetectable or almost so.   


Note: Rice grown in the South, on former cotton fields that were sprayed with insecticides in the past, contain higher levels of arsenic.


Editor's comment:  Gads!  I've been eating hot rice cereal every morning for many years while also enjoying sushi as one of my favorite appetizers and rice-marshmallow squares as my frequent carry-along snack to fend off sudden bursts of hunger.  Well, I always say, the secret to a long, happy life is adaptability. I'm scared enough to cut back on my rice a bit.  How about you?  We'd like your comments.


To read about arsenic in juices, click on these links:—back-news-again


Warning!  Cooked rice left at room temperature is dangerous!


Leftover cooked rice must be cooled promptly to prevent the growth of toxins. For important information about toxins that can grow in rice, click here:


To find more links to more information on rice, just type "rice" into the search box on the Shelf Life Advice home page. 


Source(s): "Arsenic in your food" "Questions & Answers: FDA’s Analysis of Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products" "FDA releases preliminary data on arsenic levels in rice and rice products" "Arsenic in Rice: FDA Suggests People Vary Their Diet for Now" "Madigan Alerts Parents, Caregivers to Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereals" "High arsenic levels found in organic food, baby formula" "Arsenic in Foods: FAQ"


Chicago Tribune  "Doctors suggest limiting kids' rice consumption"  September 20, 2012



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