Arsenic, a potent carcinogen found in rice products marketed as “health foods”

Chris Kresser
Medicine for the 21st Century

© cbsnews.com

If you knew there was arsenic in your food, would you eat it? More importantly, would you serve it to your children?

Recently, Consumer Reports Magazine released their analysis of arsenic levels in rice products, and the results were concerning. Popular rice products including white rice, brown rice, organic rice baby cereal, and rice breakfast cereals, were all found to contain arsenic, a potent carcinogen that can also be harmful to a child’s developing brain.

“In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms. We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.”

The study not only found a significant amount of arsenic in many rice products on the market, but also that arsenic levels in the blood directly increase with greater rice consumption.(1) Several products tested had more arsenic in each serving than the 5 parts per billion (ppb) limit for adults set by the EPA as safe. (2)

What’s worse, many of these arsenic-containing rice products are marketed to children and infants as “health foods”, and children are far more susceptible to the dangerous impacts of arsenic exposure. (3, 4, 5) Research suggests that high levels of arsenic exposure during childhood are associated with neurobehavioral problems as well as cancer and lung disease later in life. (6) This means parents must be especially careful to avoid serving their children food with significant levels of arsenic.

While many of my readers follow a strict Paleo diet and couldn’t care less about arsenic in rice, there are many more who are more liberal in their diet and consume white rice as a “safe” starch. In fact, rice is often recommended by well-educated bloggers such as Paul Jaminet as a component of a perfectly healthy and enjoyable diet. I personally eat white rice on occasion and feel it is a safe starch for those who tolerate it. But now that there is a new issue with rice consumption, one that has nothing to do with carbohydrates, does that mean we should avoid it entirely?

White rice can be a “safe” starch

I don’t think it’s necessary to completely eliminate rice from the diet. The EPA’s 5 ppb per day limit on arsenic is probably what we should shoot for in our diets, in light of current evidence. Many of the white rice products tested had fairly low levels of arsenic, and in the context of a few servings a week for an adult, it’s probably not an issue. As for very young children and infants, I don’t recommend serving them rice products in general, so they shouldn’t be exposed to arsenic from rice anyway. Pregnant women may want to be cautious about their rice intake, and minimize their exposure to arsenic to protect their developing fetus; finding another safe starch to replace rice during pregnancy would be wise.

So if you choose to purchase white rice, buy a brand made in California like Lundberg; their California White Basmati Rice has only 1.3 to 1.6 ppb arsenic per serving (1/4 cup uncooked), well below the safe limit. In addition, rinsing the rice before cooking and boiling it in a high water-to-rice ratio can help reduce the arsenic content significantly. (7) So if you want to keep white rice as a part of your diet, I recommend looking for a safe brand like Lundberg and rinsing the rice thoroughly before cooking in a large quantity of water; this should be adequate to make rice a safe food to eat in moderation.

Brown rice: Not a health food!

Brown rice, on the other hand, has significantly more arsenic than white rice and should be avoided or consumed rarely. Some of the brown rice brands tested contained at least 50% more than the safe limit per serving, and a few even had nearly double the safe limit. (PDF with complete details of test results) Note that some of the worst offenders for arsenic are made from brown rice: processed rice products like brown rice syrup, brown rice pasta, rice cakes and brown rice crisps. These processed products are commonly consumed by those following a “healthy” whole grain rich or gluten-free diet, but they clearly pose a significant risk of arsenic overexposure, especially if a person eats more than one serving per day. Obviously, brown rice is not a food that should be a dietary staple, or even eaten on a regular basis.

Aside from having a higher arsenic content, there are other reasons to avoid brown rice: it’s harder to digest and nutrient absorption is likely inferior to white rice because of phytates in the rice bran. (8) Despite a higher nutrient content of brown rice compared to white rice, the anti-nutrients present in brown rice reduce the bioavailability of any vitamins and minerals present. (9) Plus, brown rice also reduces dietary protein and fat digestibility compared to white rice. (10) In short, brown rice is not a health food for a variety of reasons, and a higher arsenic content is simply another reason to avoid eating it.

No food is completely safe or without some level of contamination risk: vegetables make up 24 percent of our arsenic exposure and tap water can legally contain 10 ppb arsenic per liter (some systems even exceed the legal limit.) (11) So while rice may contribute an unsafe level of arsenic, it’s certainly not the only source in our diet, and we need to be cautious about demonizing an entire class of food based on a soundbite from a news story. While I don’t think rice is a necessary component of a healthy diet, I do think it can be incorporated safely as a source of starch: just be sure to pay attention to the brand you’re buying, as well as your method of preparation. Considering the toxic load of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis, why would anyone want to add to this by deliberately consuming a known source?
Plants Bite Back: The Surprising, All-Natural Anti-Nutrients and Toxins in Plant Foods
Arsenic and Old Rice: Should We Worry About a Toxic Chemical in a Popular Food?
World facing ‘arsenic timebomb’
A No-Nonsense Look at Toxins and How Your Body Deals with Them

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