Rice With a Side of Arsenic

Consumer Reports tested rice products and found that more than five dozen rice and rice products contained some level of inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen, according to Reuters.

"The risks associated with long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic include higher rates of some cancers and heart disease," explains Alison Massey, RD, CDE, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Brown rice products had more arsenic than white rice, and arsenic was even found in Gerber® Baby Cereal and Kellogg's® Rice Krispies. Arsenic also was detected in rice milk and rice cakes.

The watchdog group thinks there should be set limits of how much arsenic can be permitted in rice.

"The goal of our report is to inform—not alarm—consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure," Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports, told Reuters. "The silver lining in all of this is that it is possible to get a better handle on this."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released preliminary data on arsenic levels in rice and intend to collect and analyze 1,200 samples of rice and rice products before the year is out. The agency will then make recommendations on how much arsenic is safe to consume.

Two types of arsenic compounds (organic and inorganic) are found in water, food, soil, and air. Taken together, they're called total arsenic. Since arsenic is found in water and soil, it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown by conventional or organic methods, Massey explains.

For right now, in the absence of formal guidelines, should consumers be cutting back on rice consumption? Taking certain precautions can reduce your risk of ingesting arsenic, says Adee Rasabi, RD, CDE, CDN, of New-York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "Rinse rice thoroughly before cooking it," she advises. "And use six cups of water for every one cup of rice, then drain the water before [cooking]." (Cooking enriched rice in excess water may reduce the nutrient content, Massey says.)

Consumers could also substitute other whole grains such as corn, oats, and wheat for rice.

In the absence of comprehensive studies, it's difficult to say how much rice people can safely consume, says Ken Spaeth, MD, MPH, Medical Director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at the North Shore-LIJ Health System. "I think it is challenging for a consumer to figure out whether the rice is coming from a region that has been shown to have lower arsenic levels than another," he says.

Arsenic is known to cause cancer, but it doesn't happen overnight. "The damage is cumulative over time," Spaeth says. "Putting through some legislative changes would help both with arsenic standards and also improve agricultural programs. And this would reduce people's arsenic exposure."

Allison Massey, RD, CDE, reviewed this article.




"FDA releases preliminary data on arsenic levels in rice and rice products." 19 September 2012. FDA.gov.

"U.S. needs arsenic limits in rice: Consumer Reports." 19 September 2012. Reuters.