Troubling Levels of Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products

Posted Wed, 09/19/2012 - 9:51am by Camilla Cheung

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Consumer Reports has published research that points to a high level of arsenic in rice and rice products. Rice is one of the staple foods of the American diet, not just in its whole-grain form, but as components in breakfast cereals, snacks, gluten-free foods, baby cereals, and products sweetened with rice syrup. Of greatest concern is the high level of inorganic arsenic, which is highly carcinogenic and may contribute to the development of bladder, lung, skin, prostate cancers, and more.

The consumer watchdog group tested 200 samples of rice products commonly available on supermarket shelves — including organic and conventional products, as well as products aimed at the growing gluten-free market. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no "safe" level of arsenic exposure. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not set limits on levels of arsenic in rice, it does set limits of 10 parts per billion on arsenic in drinking water. Using this standard, Consumer Reports determined that merely one serving of some rice products contained as much or more arsenic as a liter of water at the maximum allowed level of arsenic.

Especially disturbing is the high amount of arsenic found in products aimed at children, such as infant rice cereals, which contained up to 5 times the amount of inorganic arsenic as alternative cereals such as oatmeal. Arsenic can set children up for health problems later in life.

Rice is especially susceptible to arsenic contamination because it grows in flooded conditions, allowing it to easily absorb arsenic found in the surrounding water. The report found that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, which accounts for 76% of domestic rice, contained the highest levels of arsenic. This is probably because the rice is grown on former cotton fields, which were historically treated with high levels of arsenic-based pesticides.

Brown rice contained higher levels of arsenic than white rice, because the chemical concentrates in the outer layers of the rice grain.

Experts at Consumer Reports, as well as other researchers, are calling on the U.S. federal government to set limits on the amounts of arsenic allowed in food. The FDA's current stance is that the research does not yet justify recommending that consumers consume fewer rice products, and rice industry spokespeople claim that concerns are overblown.

If you do wish to limit your exposure to arsenic-containing rice products, however, Consumer Reports has some excellent recommendations. Among them, they suggest varying your intake of grains, and limiting your rice intake to just one type per day. Consumer Reports also has an extensive chart detailing how much arsenic is contained in many common food products.

In addition, parents may want to be especially vigilant about their children's rice consumption, as a recent article on Dr. Oz's blog recommends. Some baby formulas are sweetened with rice syrup, so parents should read the ingredient label and choose a formula that does not contain rice syrup. They may also want to choose oatmeal cereal as their baby's first solid food instead of rice cereal.

When choosing rice, you may want to choose jasmine or basmati rice imported from Thailand or India, or rice grown in California, which contains less arsenic. When cooking the rice, cook it in large amounts of water, and then drain the rice in a sieve — this method of cooking removes about half of the arsenic.

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