Arsenic in Our Rice – Are You Kidding?

October 16, 2012 in Foodland, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

When I think of substances that I don’t want in my food, I usually think of stuff that the food processors purposefully add. The ammonia used in making pink slime – you know that so-called “lean beef” burger ingredient – well yes, if you listen to the gigantic food processor Cargill who sings its praises. Or I think of the super load of salt that the food processors use to make bland yucky stuff taste like something edible and help keep it shelf stable and safe for eons. Oh, I shouldn’t forget the truckloads of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sugar and other sweeteners in such a wide range of food products that offer nothing nourishing to keep you healthy – empty calories, that’s it. Or maybe even the yummy stuff produced by letting bacteria gobble up corn or soy and voila! you have the emulsifier xanthan gum; so you can get stuff like oil and vinegar to easily mix together. Of course, I can’t forget nitrates and nitrites – yikes! Cancer seems a big price to pay for frequent consumption of processed meats like bacon, luncheon meats, ham and sausage. Artificial colorings can give some people hives and swelling. Of course, there are hundreds of additives to give food all kinds of attributes, textures, and tastes; and who knows what the long-term effects will be? The world will find out eventually, because we are the rats in the vast experiment on how these additives will affect the human body.

As a result of the above kinds of substances in processed foods, I usually try to eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with fish, chicken and not so much red meat, especially processed meat. I don’t give food processors much of a chance to get their hands on my food (or Vic’s – Dr. Grandpa’s for that matter.) But this past week, the news had some challenging information. It all started with an article based on a Consumer’s Report study. Vic subscribes to Consumer’s Report (CR), but I think it’s really helpful that they have put this article up on the Internet. The article is called: Arsenic in your food; Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin. They write about the “worrisome levels of arsenic.” They implicate rice as an especially worrisome food. That got my attention in a big way; we eat wonderful whole grain brown rice fairly frequently.

Because you can read the article in its entirety, I will not say too much about it. But I do want to point out a few important issues that they raise.

  • Rice has a much higher concentration of arsenic than other grains, fruits and vegetables. Rice plants have a natural tendency to take up and concentrate arsenic from the soil and water.
  • The majority (76%) of the rice grown in the U.S. is grown in the South and has the highest levels of total arsenic. The problem with this bit of information is that it’s almost impossible to learn exactly where rice is grown. It says on the packaging: “distributed by” and a state. The south-central region of the U.S. treated cotton with arsenical pesticides to combat the cotton boll weevil. Later, the former cotton fields became rice paddies. Ouch! Now we’re paying for it.
  • In the CR study, brown rice always had a higher percentage of arsenic within a brand than white rice. The reason for this inversion of the healthiness of brown rice is simple. The process of polishing rice to produce white rice removes those surface layers, slightly reducing the arsenic. Because the bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain. So we would want to be especially careful with products made with rice fiber (rice bran).
  • Because rice is grown in water, it absorbs arsenic from both the soil and water.
  • People who ate rice had arsenic levels 44% higher than those who had not eaten rice. There is arsenic in fruits and vegetables also, but it appears that rice is contributing a big share of the arsenic.
  • I like what Allan Smith, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, had to say. “So we should not be arguing to wait for years until we have results of epidemiologic studies at lower arsenic intake, such as from rice consumption, to take action.” He knows how important this issue is; he studied public water in Chile and Argentina and helped to show that it causes lung and bladder cancer and other diseases, linked to high arsenic levels. Arsenic can cause cancer in humans!
  • Because arsenic is naturally in the soil, the USA Rice Federation says that there is no reason to be concerned. But the fact is that “natural” does not equal safe. There is much more arsenic from the use of arsenic-containing products in agricultural and industrial products. Insecticides linger in the agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980s.

What can we do?

  • The FDA is in the process of collecting and analyzing a total of approximately 1,200 samples of rice and products made with rice. Their study is supposed to be completed by the end of 2012. The FDA says that they don’t have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes in consumption of rice and rice products. But I like what Allen Smith, M.D., Ph.D. says above. I’d rather be a little safer than sorry.
  • Some of those who need to be most concerned are those feeding infants; those who are pregnant; those on a gluten-free diet, those using rice-based products to substitute for wheat; those on Asian and Hispanic style diets (traditionally high in rice); those drinking private, untested well water; and those eating lots of processed foods.
  • To begin with, Consumer’s Report suggests that babies consume no more than one serving of rice cereal per day. Infants are so susceptible to toxins; if it were my baby, I think I’d just use barley, wheat, or oat cereal; until more is known.
  • Don’t give children any rice-based drinks.
  • There’s a very nice chart for using rice products for children and adults on page 25 of the Consumer’s Report article.
  • If you have a private well have the water tested. According to The New Hampshire Environmental Services you can have the test done for $15.
  • Consider changing the way you cook rice. Rinse it first. Then cook each cup in about 6 cups of water. Yes, you will be pouring away some of the nutrients, but with them goes about 30 percent of the arsenic.
  • Eat a varied diet.  Vary your diet by including other whole grains; consider wheat berries, oats, barley, whole-wheat couscous, corn grits, bulgur wheat, and quinoa, for example.
  • Because fruit also is a source of arsenic, don’t give infants under 6 months juice. Children under age 5 should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day. Older children no more than 8 to 12 ounces.
  • Read the labels of processed foods. I’d especially try to avoid products made with rice syrup. It’s a concentrated product made from cooked brown rice flour. I would not give young children rice syrup containing foods. And frankly, I will avoid it also. Read an excellent study done at Dartmouth. Arsenic is concentrated in the rice syrup. It’s often used to replace sugar or HFCS; so be especially careful with health bars and other ‘health’ foods.
  • Variety works with processed cereals, crackers and rice cakes, if they are part of your menu. If you use rice-based cereals, try oats and puffed corn, especially if you can’t consume the gluten in wheat.
  • If cancer is not enough to motivate you, you may want to spend a few moments on an article that teaches about numerous other diseases caused by arsenic.
  • Lastly, you may enjoy many of the links that were included at the end of an article by Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D., L.D. a Food and Nutrition Educator. In addition, there are some interesting facts at: Green Facts.

Unlike the usual food processor fiasco, this problem comes as a gift from nature and our farmers’ past habits of using dangerous pesticides, as well as fuel use. This is not an immediate crisis, so do not be alarmed, but be prudent. Consider the suggestions above; we should be fine if we simply moderate the use of rice and rice products until we know more.