Where does arsenic come from?
Arsenic is a toxic environmental pollutant that occurs naturally in soil and groundwater. It is also found in industrial processes and pesticides. Although arsenic-containing pesticides are mostly banned now, some of the arsenic that was used decades ago is still present in soil today, and some industries continue to deposit arsenic into soil and groundwater that ends up in our food supply.
Conrad Choiniere, director of the Office of Analytics and Outreach at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, explains by email: “The adverse health effects from arsenic exposure depend on a variety of factors, including the type of arsenic (organic or inorganic); the level of exposure; and the age of the person exposed to the arsenic.”
Organic arsenic is not as harmful as inorganic arsenic, which is quite toxic — and the type this article is referring to in relation to health risk. Unfortunately, researchers are finding inorganic arsenic in many rice-based products. In fact, rice is the most common food source of arsenic in our diet, according to the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at Dartmouth College.
Sadly, the problem may worsen with climate change. A new study suggests that arsenic uptake by rice plants will increase under higher temperatures.
More than any other grain, rice plants readily take up arsenic from soil and water, and it remains intact when we eat rice or when it is processed into rice flour or the honey-like sweetener known as brown rice syrup. These ingredients are often used by food manufacturers to make crackers, baked goods, breakfast cereals and rice-based baby foods.
If you’re thinking, “But I only eat organic brown rice … surely that’s healthy,” you’re in for a surprise: Inorganic arsenic is found in the outer husk of rice grains, which stays intact on brown rice, meaning there’s more arsenic in brown rice than in white rice. And soil on organic farms can have remnants of arsenic from historical pesticide use.
What’s the risk?
The greatest health risk comes from chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic, and that’s more likely to come from contaminated water rather than rice. So take a deep breath — Choiniere says that “the short-term health effects that can occur from high levels of arsenic are at exposures far higher than what is typically found in foods.”
Of course, eating highly contaminated rice products multiple times a day, week after week, is not a smart idea, especially if you are cooking in water that also contains arsenic. That’s an example of chronic arsenic exposure, which is linked to an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It can also lead to chronic arsenic poisoning, which may trigger skin lesions and skin cancer.
Choiniere says that arsenic is also a known carcinogen for lung and bladder cancer. A lifetime exposure to all rice products carries a risk of lung or bladder cancer in 39 out of 1 million Americans. For perspective, the number of lung and bladder cancer cases from all causes is 90,000 per million people over a lifetime — so rice doesn’t put you at a huge risk.
It’s a bit different with infants and children, where even low-level exposure to arsenic has been associated with neurodevelopmental issues, Choiniere says. Arsenic in children’s diets has been linked to issues with cognitive development, intelligence and memory.
Arsenic may also harm a pregnancy and boost infant mortality rates. When a baby is exposed to inorganic arsenic in utero, there’s an increased risk of cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and kidney failure.
So, how much rice can I, and my kids, eat?
The FDA has not found any scientific basis to recommend that adult consumers change their rice consumption based on the presence of arsenic, Choiniere says. “Consumers can eat rice as part of a well-balanced diet,” he says, but he didn’t specify exact amounts that are recommended daily or weekly.
The bigger issue is rice intake in infants and children, who have up to three times the exposure to arsenic from rice compared with adults.
Kacie Barnes, a Dallas-based registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics through her practice Mama Knows Nutrition, explains that infants and young children eat more food per pound of body weight than adults, so when their foods have a higher level of arsenic, they have more exposure than an adult.
“The FDA recommends that parents and caregivers feed their infants a variety of grain-based infant cereals, rather than to rely solely on infant rice cereal,” Choiniere says. “Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for infants, but it shouldn’t be the only source and does not need to be the first.”
If you’re a new parent, that advice for rice intake may not be low enough for your peace of mind. Barnes takes a firmer stance. “As a dietitian, I do not recommend rice cereal for babies,” she says. “Babies can start on single-ingredient foods like avocado, banana, pureed peas or beans, baby oatmeal and even pureed meat.”
Barnes also tells clients with children over age 5 not to serve rice products more than four times per week.
Jessica Gust, a pediatric dietitian and founder of Element Nutrition Kids in Arroyo Grande, Calif., adds that the best thing parents can do for their children is to offer variety when it comes to food.e adds that the best thing parents can do for their children is to offer variety when it comes to food.
“There is no magic number when it comes to how many rice products are safe to eat,” Gust says. “What parents should avoid is only offering rice products. If parents are giving a good variety of foods, they really don’t need to stress about the occasional rice product.”
In 2020, the FDA finalized guidance to the food industry not to exceed inorganic arsenic levels of 100 parts per billion in infant rice cereal. The effort is paying off: Arsenic in infant rice cereal has already decreased by 29 percent between 2012 and 2018 (the last available numbers), and the initiative is ongoing.
Make informed choices
The good news? There are many ways to enjoy rice while cutting back on arsenic, no matter how often you eat it.
Margaret Rita Karagas, director of the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center, shared tips from a website the center developed to help families make decisions about choosing rice with less arsenic:
· Pick white rice more often than brown rice.
· Choose lower-arsenic types of rice, including white basmati rice from California, India or Pakistan, or sushi rice grown in the United States.
· Don’t cook rice in well water that is contaminated with arsenic.
· Opt for variety by alternating rice with low-arsenic grains such as oats, barley, quinoa, millet and wheat.
Barnes adds that it’s a good idea to cook rice like pasta: with lots of extra water, then drain off the water when it’s done to eliminate some of the arsenic. The FDA says this method can reduce arsenic levels by up to 60 percent. As for the common recommendation to rinse rice before cooking: FDA research shows it has a minimal effect on arsenic content of the cooked grain. But note: Rinsing rice or cooking it in extra water will reduce the iron and B vitamins that are added to enriched, polished and parboiled rice by up to 70 percent.
Finally, if you use private well water, get it tested for arsenic. Testing by the Environmental Protection Agency applies only to public water sources, not private wells, so it’s up to you to get it tested.