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Sep 19, 2012 11:18 AM

High arsenic levels found in rice & rice products - moderation recommended

What some are calling high levels of inorganic arsenic have been found in samples of rice and rice products (eg Rice Krispies and Geber's infant cereal) tested by Consumer Reports and the Illinois Attorney General's office. The FDA is conducting a larger study, but in preliminary results the agency says it has found roughly similar results.

Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen (bladder, lung, and skin cancers) when consumed in (cumulatively) large quantities. There are no standards yet for arsenic limits in foods, just for limits in water (there have been many cases in the past of cancers related to arsenic toxicity from drinking well water). The FDA says they will make recommendations after further study.

Brown rice tended to have larger quantities of arsenic than white rice.

Possible concern about inorganic arsenic levels in rice was discussed in an earlier thread, which mentioned this British report from 2007

Of course, the rice industry says this is all being blown way out of proportion and that it's nonsensical to single out rice as a problem food, since inorganic arsenic occurs in many foods and no one has shown that its presence in foods has caused health problems.

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  1. For most Americans, this probably is not a hugely important issue, since Americans generally tend not to consume all that much rice. But for someone like me who eats A LOT of rice, and especially for those who may have other risk factors for cancers, it might be an issue of concern.

    The Washington Post offers several suggestions, from Consumer Reports and the FDA, on steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure to arsenic.

    This one stood out in particular for me:

    "Rinse rice thoroughly before cooking. Instead of cooking rice in water that is entirely absorbed by the grains, use a ratio of six cups water to one cup rice and drain the excess water. Research shows these steps remove about 30 percent of the rice’s inorganic arsenic content."

    I know everyone always recommends rinsing rice thoroughly before cooking it (but I confess that when cooking for myself, I often skip this step!).

    3 Replies
    1. re: racer x

      "I know everyone always recommends rinsing rice thoroughly before cooking it. . ."

      Rice for risotto is the notable exception. Italian cooks don't rinse it, and I don't either. Have you found any data on arsenic levels for the varieties of rice grown in northern Italy (arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano, etc.) and used in risotto and similar dishes?

      1. re: cheesemaestro

        I don't know about the rice.The soil in much of Italy north of the PO is high in arsenic,so is much of Virginia and Maryland.Over the decades since WW II there has been controversy about the levels of arsenic and lead in water throughout the north.

        1. re: cheesemaestro

          It's still an issue, but a much smaller concern as the arsenic is mostly found in the parts of the rice that are removed in virtually all white rice varieties, which is why the levels tested so much higher in brown rice than white.

        from Feb 2012 talks about brown rice syrup as a possible source of inorganic arsenic. This is the organic 'natural' alternative to HFCS used in energy bars and even baby formulas.

        webmed faq on the topic

        It is also clear, from this and other sources, that inorganic arsenic in well water remains the area of biggest concern (world wide). That's where EPA guidelines come into play.

        1. when i looked into this study in more detail, it seemed that the numbers are a little misleading. the arsenic levels were considered a possible risk factor for children, but the most stringent warnings seemed to center on brown-rice-based infant/baby formula/food. the study covered not just rice, but also rice derivatives and rice-based products (such as supplement bars, rice pastas, etc). rice that was not adequately rinsed was higher risk (rinsing makes for better rice anyway imo...), and arsenic levels varied significantly by where the rice was grown (texas, missouri, california...), what kind of rice (brown, white, long grain, short grain, medium grain...), and more. the study did not address rice grown in other countries (thailand, mexico...). overall, interesting in a way and i'll keep watching the issue... i'll also keep eating my rice 2-3x a day. fwiw, i eat white rice grown either in california (my short-grain rice) or thailand (my jasmine rice). no data on the thai rice, no specifics or warnings about the california-grown rice.

          1. Time enough to raise the alarm if the FDA actually finds harmful levels of arsenic in rice that's on the market. Seems to me that Consumer Reports is crying wolf, warning of a danger that isn't known to exist. And there's always the danger that like the boy in the story, people will pay less heed to the FDA if eventually it does find a real danger, if there have already been false alarms about it.

            Nothing we eat or drink is wholly without risk, if not in itself then if it's contaminated. But we can't not eat everything! More generally, living is a hazard to your health. :-)

            1 Reply
            1. re: John Francis

              The growth of corporate power over regulatory and legislative functions "is a hazard to your health." Consumer Reports raising an alarm to call the populace's attention to the issue and, perhaps (albeit unlikely), lead to some attention to the problem when enough Americans actually think about what's happened is a welcome contribution to returning to a government where the safety of the air, water, food, etc. is of paramount importance - not shareholder value. Waiting for the FDA to do something - Really? At least 90 percent of the country is in favor of labeling foods containing GMOs, yet the FDA refuses to seriously consider the issue.

              Face it, there has been a coordinated, well-funded effort to use lobbying and political spending to cap the progress on these issues ever since Powell's famous memo.* Eroding the protective powers of the agencies created to ensure the basic quality of life in the US seems like a goal that would not be near the top of priorities for the average citizen. But then again, some people think that the coal companies have the right idea about global warming.

              At bottom, if someone told her guests "eating this chicken that I left on the counter all afternoon before I cooked it to 140 degrees is fine," most folks would probably decline, even though there is actually a decent chance that they would survive the meal. If there is a notable chance that something is more likely than not to be the cause of a problem shouldn't we attempt to avoid the production of that chance until certain? Why should consumers bear the risk? Why not put it upon the industries that are the best suited to deal with it in a widespread fashion?

              *So it's clear, I've spent my time in corporate board rooms advising clients.

            2. There are some studies that suggest one might not want to wait for all the food study results to limit exposure, though: