Should I worry about arsenic in my rice?
Does rice really contain harmful quantities of arsenic? Dr Michael Mosley of Trust Me, I’m A Doctor investigates.
Many of us are regular consumers of rice – UK consumption is on the rise, and in 2015 we ate 150m kg of the stuff. But there have been reports about rice containing inorganic arsenic – a known poison – so should we be worried?
Arsenic occurs naturally in soil, and inorganic arsenic is classified as a category one carcinogen by the EU, meaning that it’s known to cause cancer in humans.
The consequences of arsenic poisoning have been seen most dramatically in Bangladesh. Where populations have been exposed to contaminated drinking water.
The result has been described as a “slow burning epidemic” of cancers, heart disease and developmental problems.
Because arsenic exists in soil, small amounts can get into food, though in general these levels are so low that they’re not a cause for concern.
Rice however, is different from other crops, because it’s grown under flooded conditions. This makes the arsenic locked in the soil more readily available. Meaning that more can be absorbed into the rice grains.
This is why rice contains about 10-20 times more arsenic than other cereal crops. But are these levels high enough to do us any real harm?
“The only thing I can really equate it to is smoking,” says Prof Andy Meharg of Queen’s University Belfast, who has been studying arsenic for decades.
“If you take one or two cigarettes per day. Your risks are going to be a lot less than if you’re smoking 30 or 40 cigarettes a day. It’s dose-dependent – the more you eat, the higher your risk is.”
He believes that the current legislation isn’t strict enough. And that more needs to be done to protect those who eat a lot of rice.
Eating a couple of portions of rice a week isn’t putting an adult like me at high risk. But Prof Meharg is concerned about children and babies.
“We know that low levels of arsenic impact immune development, they impact growth development, they impact IQ development,” he says.
Legislation is stricter
Because of this, the legislation is stricter around products specifically marketed at children – but many other rice products that they may also eat. Such as puffed rice cereals, can contain adult levels of arsenic.
It sounds quite scary, even if you don’t eat lots of rice. But there’s an easy solution – a way to cook rice that dramatically reduces the arsenic content.
Now, some ways of cooking rice reduce arsenic levels more than others. We carried out some tests with Prof Meharg and found the best technique is to soak the rice overnight before cooking it in a 5:1 water-to-rice ratio.
That cuts arsenic levels by 80%, compared to the common approach of using two parts water to one part rice and letting all the water soak in. Using lots of water – the 5:1 ratio – without pre-soaking also reduced arsenic levels, but not by as much as the pre-soaking levels.
So, while I would now think twice about feeding young children too much rice or rice products. I’m not going to stop eating rice myself. I will, however, be cooking it in more water and, when I remember, leave it to soak overnight.
In late 2012
In late 2012 we released our original report on arsenic in rice. Which we found measurable levels in almost all of the 60 rice varieties and rice products we tested.
Our most recent testing and analysis gave us some new information on the risk of arsenic exposure in infants and children through rice cereal and other rice products.
We looked at data released by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 on the inorganic arsenic content of 656 processed rice-containing products.
We found that rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than our 2012 data showed.
According to the results of our new tests. One serving of either could put kids over the maximum amount of rice we recommend they should have in a week. Rice cakes supply close to a child’s weekly limit in one serving.
Rice drinks can also be high in arsenic. And children younger than 5 shouldn’t drink them instead of milk. (Learn the new rice rules about weekly servings.)
In 2012, we recommended that babies eat no more than one serving of infant rice cereal per day, on average, and that their diets should include cereals made from other grains.
We did not find any reason to change our advice based on our new analysis.
When we shared our results with the FDA and asked for comment. The agency reiterated its recommendation that everyone, including pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, should eat a variety of grains.
And they pointed out that parents should “consider options other than rice cereal for a child’s first solid food.”
The Trouble With Arsenic
Arsenic has two chemical forms, inorganic and organic (the latter of which can be less toxic), and is naturally part of the minerals in the earth’s crust. (Note, here organic is a chemistry term and should not be confused with food sold as “organic.”) Arsenic also has been released into the environment through the use of pesticides and poultry fertilizer. (Chickens can be fed arsenic.)
Therefore, it’s in soil and water. Rice tends to absorb arsenic more readily than many other plants.
Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system.
The USA Rice Federation says, “Studies show that including white or brown rice in the diet provides measureable health benefits that outweigh the potential risks associated with exposure to trace levels of arsenic.” Consumer Reports food safety experts believe those levels do carry a risk.
There is no federal limit for arsenic in rice and rice products. (The FDA has proposed a “action level” for arsenic in juice.) Since 2012, Consumer Reports has been calling on the FDA to set one.
The agency told us: “The FDA’s ongoing assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority for the agency.
Last year, the FDA released what we believe to be the largest set of test results to date on the presence of arsenic in rice and rice products.
And we are planning to release a draft assessment of the potential health risks associated with the consumption of arsenic in these same foods.”
Answering Consumers’ Questions
After our 2012 report, we got many questions. Two of the most common: “Are there any types of rice that are lower in arsenic?” and “Do other grains, such as quinoa, contain arsenic, too?” We now have the answers.
In addition to analyzing the FDA data on rice products. Scientists at our Food Safety and Sustainability Center tested 128 samples of basmati, jasmine, and sushi rice for arsenic.
We combined the data with the results of our 2012 tests and FDA data on arsenic in rice for a total of 697 samples of rice. We also looked at the inorganic arsenic levels in 114 samples of nonrice grains. (You can read the details of our testing in our full report.)
Our latest tests determined that the inorganic arsenic content of rice varies greatly depending on the type of rice and where it was grown.
White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. on average has half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice.
Our findings led us to treat those specific rices from those areas differently from other types of rice and rices grown in other regions.
Based on our data, we calculated that consumers could have about twice as many weekly servings as we previously recommended if that was the only rice or rice product someone ate. For adults, that adds up to 4½ servings per week; children could have 2¾ servings.
All types of rice (except sushi and quick cooking) with a label indicating that it’s from Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas or just from the U.S. had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in our tests.
For instance, white rices from California have 38 percent less inorganic arsenic than white rices from other parts of the country.
Brown rice has 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type. Arsenic accumulates in the grain’s outer layers, which are removed to make white rice.
Brown has more nutrients, though, so you shouldn’t switch entirely to white. Brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan is the best choice; it has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices.
Rice that’s grown organically takes up arsenic the same way conventional rice does. So don’t rely on organic to have less arsenic.
Grains Lower in Arsenic
The gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta or grits had negligible levels of inorganic arsenic.
Bulgur, barley, and farro, which contain gluten, also have very little arsenic. Quinoa (also gluten-free), had average inorganic arsenic levels comparable to those of other alternative grains. But some samples had quite a bit more.
Though they were still much lower than any of the rices. Those spikes illustrate the importance of varying the types of grains you eat.
Cooking to Lower Arsenic Levels
You may be able to cut your exposure to inorganic arsenic in any type of rice by rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking. Using a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice, and draining the excess water afterward.
That is a traditional method of cooking rice in Asia. The modern technique of cooking rice in water that is entirely absorbed by the grains has been promoted because it allows rice to retain more of its vitamins and other nutrients.
But even though you may sacrifice some of rice’s nutritional value, research has shown that rinsing and using more water removes about 30 percent of the rice’s inorganic arsenic content.
The New Rice Rules: 7 Points per Week
We used our new data and analysis to assign a point value to types of rice foods. On average, we recommend getting no more than 7 points per week.
`Risk analysis is based on weight, so a serving of any food will give children more points than adults.
|PRODUCT||SERVING SIZE||CHILD POINTS1||ADULT POINTS1|
|Infant Rice Cereal||1/4 cup, uncooked||1-1/4||NA|
|Rice Cereal, Hot||1/4 cup, uncooked||8-1/4||3-1/2|
|Rice Cereal, Ready to Eat||1 cup||4-1/2||2-1/4|
|Rice Drinks||1 cup||4||2|
|White Basmati2 or Sushi Rice||1/4 cup, uncooked||2-1/2||1-1/2|
|All Other Rice||1/4 cup, uncooked||5-1/2||3-1/2|
|Rice Pasta||2 ounces, uncooked||7-1/4||3|
|Rice Cakes||1 to 3 rice cakes||6-1/4||2-1/2|
|Rice Crackers||16 to 18 crackers||2-3/4||1-1/4|
|Cake or Muffin Mix||2 to 3 ounces||3-3/4||1-1/2|
|Brownie Mix||1 to 2 ounces||1-1/4||1/2|
|Cookies||1 to 3 cookies||1-3/4||3/4|
|Rice Pudding||about 1/3 cup||1-3/4||3/4|
|Pie- or Pizza-Crust Mix||2 ounces||2||1|
|Snack Bars (Cereal, Granola, or Energy)||1- to 2-ounce bar||2-3/4||1-1/4|