When Eating Rice, Mind the Arsenic

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Rice is a staple in diets around the world, and if you are plant-based, chances are you make a rice dish every now and then. Health advocates like Dr. Raj Patel, the author of The Healthy Indian Diet, have advised that we choose brown rice over white rice. The reason is that brown rice has been milled only lightly and therefore retains much of its fiber and micronutrients. The website World’s Healthiest Foods tells us:

The complete milling and polishing that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron, and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids.

More arsenic in rice from cotton states

When eating rice, mind the arsenic

Unfortunately, Consumer Reports discovered in 2012 that rice is high in inorganic arsenic. That applies to white rice and even more to brown rice. Among the causes is arsenic-laden pesticides, which were once deployed on cotton fields. That explains why rice from states where cotton was a leading cash crop is more contaminated  than rice from California.

Inorganic arsenic, says the World Health Organization, is highly toxic:

Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

In 2012, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food safety standards for the United Nations, adopted a maximum level of inorganic arsenic for white rice of 200 parts per billion. The U.S. has no such standard for rice, but the Environmental Protection Agency has set 10 parts per billion as the maximum arsenic level for the public water supply. The Center for Public Integrity finds this standard far too weak. It reports:

New research has raised questions whether even low levels of arsenic can be harmful, especially to children and fetuses. …

Researchers from Columbia University gave IQ tests to about 270 grade-school children in Maine. They also checked to see if there was arsenic in their tap water at home. Maine is known as a hot spot for arsenic in groundwater.

The researchers found that children who drank water with arsenic — even at levels below the current EPA drinking water standard — had an average IQ deficit of six points compared to children who drank water with virtually no arsenic.

How seriously should you take this?

Should you be concerned about inorganic arsenic in your rice? The Environmental Working Group says:

In EWG’s view, the answer is yes. Federal government scientists and regulators and food industry officials are scrambling to respond to emerging evidence that arsenic, a known human carcinogen, contaminates many otherwise healthy foods that contain rice. EWG scientists have concluded that consumers should shop vigilantly, choosing foods selectively to lower their chances of consuming excessive arsenic. That’s why EWG’s Food Scores flags arsenic as a “concern” in rice-based products.

Scientists have been investigating whether fertilizers enriched with silicon can prevent rice from absorbing arsenic.[i] Until their findings have an impact on our rice supply, I might have rice every once in a while when eating out. But at home I’ll replace it with quinoa, millet, or barley.

If you don’t want to give up on your rice, take a look at the Lundberg brand from California. It has been pretty transparent about its arsenic levels, empowering you to make an informed decision.

Endnotes

[i] Guo, W., Y-L. Hou, S-G. Wang, and Y-G. Zhu. “Effect of silicate on the growth and arsenate uptake by rice (Oryza sativa L.) seedlings in solution culture.” Plant and Soil 272, no. 1-2 (2005): 173-181. Online (abstract only): Find it here.

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