On Friday, September 6, 2013, the FDA released results of arsenic contamination levels of rice and rice products from retail stores across the United States.
Combined with data collected in September 2012, this brings the total number of rice products tested by the FDA to 1300. Their results are comparable to those found by a Consumer’s Report investigation in 2012.
Before I share any numbers with you, let me give you a frame of reference. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that there is no safe level of inorganic arsenic in our food and they have never established a permissible level. The EPA does, however, limit arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per million. At that level, drinking one liter of water per day would expose a person to 10 mcg of inorganic arsenic. Let’s therefore assume that the federal government has established that it is safe to consume no more than 10 mcg of inorganic arsenic per day.
Every rice product tested contained some level of detectable arsenic.
The most recent update from the FDA reports that average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 2.6 to 7.2 mcg per serving in rice itself and 0.1 to 6.6 mcg per serving in rice products. Brown rice and rice pasta were at the high end of the spectrum for each of these categories.
The Consumer’s Report data from 2012 showed that one serving of long grain brown rice from Whole Foods packed a whopping 7.4 to 8.4 mcg of arsenic. Barbara’s Organic Brown Rice Crisps had 5.9 to 6.7 mcg per serving. Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Rice Pasta had 5.9 to 6.9 mcg.
The Source of Arsenic
Arsenic is a naturally occurring metal in the earth’s crust. But human activities such as burning fuel, mining, and agricultural practices have increased arsenic levels in the environment.
The United States is the world’s leading user of arsenic. Residues from decades of use of lead-arsenate pesticides linger in our soil today. One arsenical pesticide continues to be used on golf courses and roadsides. Arsenical drugs are fed to chickens to improve their pigmentation and their growth. Arsenic-laced poultry waste is then used to make fertilizer, which directly contaminates our crops.
Arsenic is a pollutant of our soil and water. Because rice is grown in water, it takes up more of this toxin than other grains or foods. The arsenic concentrates in the outer layer of the grain, which is why we see higher levels in brown than white rice.
Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers. For those of you who want the details, see this article on chronic arsenic toxicity.
What to Do
Based on these results, Consumer Reports has issued recommendations to limit arsenic exposure. For adults they recommend consuming no more than either 2 servings of rice per week or 3 servings of rice pasta per week or one serving of rice crackers per day. Please follow this link to see a chart of their recommendations.
For ethnic groups whose traditional diets rely predominantly on rice, these recommendations can be extremely restrictive. For those of us who eat a gluten-free diet, they can be equally challenging.
Consumer Reports makes a few other recommendations for reducing arsenic exposure:
- Check your water. If you have a municipal water supply, reports should be available annually.
- Change the way you cook rice. Rinse rice thoroughly before cooking. Cook with a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice and drain when it is finished. Research shows that this removes about 30% of the rice’s inorganic arsenic. But other nutrients will also be sacrificed to the cooking water and it is not known which variable has a more profound health impact over time.
- Vary your diet. Wheat and oats have lower arsenic levels than rice. Quinoa, millet and amaranth have not been studied as much.
The Bigger Picture
Rice is not the only food that is contaminated by arsenic. A 2009-2010 study by the EPA estimated that rice contributes 17% of dietary inorganic arsenic with fruits and fruit juices providing 18% and vegetables at 24%.
This is not a “rice” issue. This is a “planet” issue. If we continue to pollute our earth with unnecessary chemicals such as arsenical pesticides and drugs for chickens, we will never again have a safe food supply.
In fact even organic farming practices cannot prevent arsenic from being soaked up by the plants. The arsenic is present in our environment so it is present in our foods and it is present in our bodies.
We could rapidly make ourselves sick with worry over these issues. Or we could accept the reality that our food supply is impure and do everything in our power to support our body’s resilience to thrive.
I prefer the second option. Load up on your fruits and veggies every day, choose the cleanest foods you can afford, and eat a wide variety of foods in moderation. This has always been and will always be the best that we can do.