Is There Arsenic in Rice and Should I Be Concerned?

Updated on February 19, 2018
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Kate graduated from Sonoma State University with a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Biology. She currently resides in Sonoma, California.

Which widely consumed staple of the modern American diet has come under scrutiny within the past few years for containing higher than usual amounts of the highly toxic element arsenic? Many would say fruit juices as they have been in the headlines a lot lately; but believe it or not it's rice.

Rice is found in hundreds of food products and is consumed by people of all age groups. The average American adult consumes over 25 pounds of rice every year.

So, is arsenic really in the rice we eat and should it be cause for concern? The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

Where Rice Is Grown Makes a Difference

Higher Rice Arsenic Levels Are Found in Rice From:
Lower Rice Arsenic Levels Are Found in Rice From:
Arkansas
California
Louisiana
India
Texas
Pakistan
A recent study by consumer reports found that where the rice is produced seems to have an impact on its arsenic levels.

Consumer Reports Confirms: There Is Arsenic in the Rice We Eat

In 2012, Consumer Reports tested 60 different varieties of rice and rice products and found significant amounts of arsenic in all 60. The products they tested ranged from name-brand and generic to organic and gluten-free and included brown and white rice, and rice-based baby, infant, and breakfast cereals.

Just like water, arsenic levels in rice are measured in parts per billion, or ppb. For most of the U.S., the EPA established standard for drinking water is 10-ppb.

In their study, Consumer Reports established a 5-ppb base level, and what they found was that just a single adult serving of some rice products contained almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic level of 1 liter of water.

The study also discovered that rice from different parts of the country and the world contained varying levels of arsenic. For example, rice that originated in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas contained higher levels than those that originated in California, India, and Pakistan.

A map of areas where high natural occurring arsenic levels are found in the groundwater. Rice grown in water contaminated with arsenic will absorb it.
A map of areas where high natural occurring arsenic levels are found in the groundwater. Rice grown in water contaminated with arsenic will absorb it. | Source

Where Does Arsenic in Rice Come From?

So how does arsenic get into rice in the first place? Let's begin answering this question by defining what arsenic is. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in the environment in two forms: organic and inorganic.

Organic arsenic is less toxic to humans than inorganic arsenic, but unfortunately both forms are lurking in rice with the inorganic (having been classified by the World Health Organization as a Group 1 carcinogen) as the most dominant.

Common Sources of Inorganic Arsenic in Rice

  • Fertilizers
  • Insecticides
  • Pesticides
  • Runoff from mining operations

The rice plant that is exposed to these contaminants absorbs the arsenic as it grows and does so in greater amounts than most plant-based foods that we eat.

Can Any Other Contaminants Be Found in Rice?

Rice plants can be considered one of nature's most effective sponges. Tests have found that not only do they absorb arsenic, but they also absorb other contaminents that have been proven to be dangerous or even deadly, including:

  • Cadmium
  • Mercury
  • Tungsten
  • Lead
  • Mineral oil
  • Rodent feaces
  • Materials used in packaging (such as plastics)

Is Brown or White Rice Safest?

Between the two common varieties of rice found on store shelves, brown and white, brown rice has been shown to contain the most inorganic arsenic. The reason for this is that the arsenic tends to be concentrated mostly in the bran and husk which do not get removed as they do when the rice is refined, or using industry lingo, gets polished off, to make white rice.

The Bran and Husk are the areas where arsenic levels are the highest. White rice usually has lower arsenic levels because these areas are stripped away during processing.
The Bran and Husk are the areas where arsenic levels are the highest. White rice usually has lower arsenic levels because these areas are stripped away during processing.

What Are the Dangers of Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic?

Inorganic arsenic has been linked to a host of cancers affecting the bladder, lungs, skin, liver, kidneys, and prostate, and has been found to be a contributing factor of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For expectant mothers, it can also affect the immune systems of their unborn children.

Identifying Risk Factors

If your child is consuming 2 or more servings of rice cereal per day, this should be of concern to you. Consumer Reports recommends children get no more than 1 three-quarter cup serving per day and that their diets be supplemented with cereals containing wheat, oatmeal, or corn which have been found to contain less arsenic.

Their recommendation for adults, and especially pregnant women, with both groups being at a greater risk, is not to exceed more than 3 servings per week, and as with infants, they should include more non-rice grains.

How to Avoid Arsenic in Rice

In order to reduce arsenic amounts when preparing rice and rice-based products, Consumer Reports suggests taking the following steps

1. Have Your Water Tested

Arsenic, and it's evil cousin, lead, can both be found in the water we drink, bathe in, and cook in. This is especially true if your home is connected to a non-public water system. To have your water tested, call your local health department or the the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

2. Adjust Your Preparation Method

The typical way Americans cook their rice is to let it boil and absorb the water it's cooked in, with the idea being this will allow the rice to retain more of its vitamins and nutrients. Unfortunately, this also allows the original amount of arsenic to remain in the rice.

An FDA recommended healthier method is to first rinse the rice thoroughly and then boil it in a 6:1 ratio of water to rice, draining the excess water once it is fully cooked. Research shows that yes, preparing it this way sacrifices some nutritional value, but it also helps remove 40 to 60 percent of inorganic arsenic.

3. Try Other Grains

If you typically eat 2-3 servings of rice per week, begin incorporating non-rice grains into your diet such as wheat, oats, and quinoa. These alternatives, though not arsenic free, contain much less arsenic than rice.

Rice fields can be beautiful places, but the safety of the rice grown there depends heavily on the quality of the water it grows in.
Rice fields can be beautiful places, but the safety of the rice grown there depends heavily on the quality of the water it grows in.

Changing an Industry

The FDA tests for arsenic in food through both its Total Diet Study and Toxic Elements in Foods and Foodware programs.

In 2016, they proposed an "action level, or limit, for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal", but there is still no established government limit on the amount of arsenic that can be in foods, and only a handful of companies are actively utilizing methods to help combat the amount of arsenic in rice.

Along with complacency, rice producers are also standing in the way of any progress on this matter. They argue that there is not one shred of documented evidence showing any adverse health effects from consuming rice and therefore any concerns are overblown.

Counter to this argument is a University of California Berkeley study of water in Chile and Argentina which showed long-term exposure to arsenic can contribute to a range of illnesses including lung and bladder cancer.

What Is Being Done About the Arsenic in Our Rice?

Action must be taken if there is to be any advancement in reducing arsenic levels in our food supply. Consumer Reports argues that the EPA, FDA, and USDA should work to ban all arsenic-laden pesticides, manure fertilizer, livestock drugs, and animal by-products.

Additionally, Consumers Union, the policy and advocate arm of Consumer Reports, is pushing for:

  1. An arsenic standard to be set for rice.
  2. An acceleration of rice industry efforts to reduce arsenic levels.
  3. An industry push to use rice with the least amounts of arsenic in baby foods.
  4. The development of plants that absorb less amounts of toxic elements.

Conclusion

Completely eliminating arsenic in rice may not be attainable any time in the near future, but reducing it certainly is. It will take a coordinated effort between government and rice industry entities all working together for the better health of consumers.

In the meantime, you and your family can still enjoy rice-based foods as part of a well-balanced diet; however, be sure to eat them in moderation and proactively monitor amounts given to infants and children.

Sources

"How Much Arsenic Is in Your Rice?" November 18, 2014. Consumer Reports. Retrieved February 14, 2018.

"The Trouble With Rice" April 18, 2014. The New York Times. Retrieved February 14, 2018.

"Questions & Answers: Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products" October 25, 2017. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved February 14, 2018.

"Arsenic and Cancer Risk" July 18, 2014. American Cancer Society. Retrieved February 14, 2018.

How do you plan to reduce your exposure to the arsenic in rice?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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    © 2018 Kate Daily

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