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Arsenic in rice - An Overview

Dr. Becky Lee
10 March 2017

Arsenic in rice - An Overview
Written by : Dr. Becky Lee ND Naturopathic Doctor.

Marsden Center for Naturopathic Excellence
9131 Keele Street
Vaughan , ON - L4K 0G7

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If you or your child is like mine and is sensitive to gluten and dairy – rice will often be the first thing you turn to! But did you know, there is a downside to rice. Rice based foods and drinks can contain a high concentration of inorganic arsenic.(1) Why do we care about arsenic in our foods?

First, what is arsenic?

Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment and can come from man-made products like pesticides. It can be found in water, air, foods and the soil. While foods can contain both organic and inorganic arsenic, it’s the inorganic arsenic that is most toxic and can cause long-term health problems (1)(2). Unfortunately, rice is more susceptible to higher levels of arsenic as it is grown in water and has a natural tendency to take up more arsenic than other foods do.

What can it do to our bodies?

The tough part in assessing the extent of damage that is caused by arsenic on our bodies is due to the fact that symptoms and potentially diseases caused by long-term elevated exposure to inorganic arsenic differ between individuals, population groups and geographical areas. (3) This means that everyone’s body has a different potential response to the exposure to arsenic. But what has it been associated with causing? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer of the skin, bladder and lungs and can cause skin lesions. (3) In fact, arsenic is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic to humans. (3) The difficult part about assessing the impact of arsenic in the development of cancer is that there is no method to distinguish cases of cancer caused by arsenic from cancers caused by other factors. (3) Most often in cancer cases, there is not just one component that is responsible but a combination of a bunch of factors (ie. age, family history, lifestyle, smoking, etc.) Aside from cancer, regular exposure to arsenic has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.(3) Recent studies also suggest that arsenic in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system. (4)

Arsenic in rice - An Overview
What are the levels of arsenic seen in foods?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been increasing its testing of arsenic since 2011.(2) On Sept 2013 the FDA released analytical results of approximately 1300 samples of rice and rice products. Among rice grain categories, average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving.(2) The interesting part is that instant rice was at the low end of the range and brown rice was at the high end as mentioned above. Among rice product categories, the average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 0.1 to 6.6 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving.(2) Infant formula was at the low end of the range and rice pasta was at the high end. They concluded that these levels are not high enough to cause immediate or short-term adverse health effects.(2) However, they could not assess for long term effects of arsenic on the body. The problem is that there is no guideline so far for levels on safe amounts of arsenic in our food. Levels have only been set for safe amounts in drinking water. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the European Union (EU) and the World Health Organization have set a level of 10 micrograms per liter for total arsenic concentration in drinking water.(2) Research measuring levels in rice milk show that arsenic concentrations can range from 2.7 (+/- 0.3) to 17.9 (+/- 0.5) micrograms per liter.(4) These higher levels can reach above the safe level of 10 micrograms per liter that is considered safe in drinking water!

Gluten free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet and polenta or grits had negligible levels of arsenic when tested.(7) Quinoa is a low-arsenic grain that is also a good source of protein.(7)

Arsenic in rice - An Overview Do organic foods have less arsenic?

We always think organic is best, but does it matter with regards to arsenic levels? Arsenic is naturally found in the soil and water and is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional means or by using organic practices. There does not appear to be any data so far to show that there is a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus conventionally grown rice. (6)

Is rice from some parts of the world safer?

The FDA itself says that because it did not make a cross state or country comparison so this data does not exist in their files. There would be multiple comparisons that would have to be made including “type of rice, soil composition, brands of fertilizer used, seasonal variability, growing practices and water use practices.”(6) All of which they have not been done. However, according to Consumer reports studies, there are certain forms or rice that seem to be better. For example, basmati rice from California appears to be the lowest in arsenic. White basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan and sushi rice from US on average has half of the inorganic arsenic amount of most other types of rice. Rice from Texas were among the highest in arsenic.(7) With regards to brown rice, it normally has 80% more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type. Brown basmati from California, India and Pakistan appears to be the best choice and has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rice. (7)

What about infant exposure to arsenic?

Babies are especially susceptible to dietary exposure of arsenic since many first foods contain rice and they have a low body mass. Arsenic in rice - An Overview Low body weight of infants means that when expressed on a microgram per kilogram per day (ug/kg/d) basis even low concentrations of arsenic can result in much higher exposures than are deemed safe for an adult drinking water. In one particular study, arsenic was detectable in all infant formulas but it was noted that an arsenic exposure of a three month old baby weighing 6.2kg and drinking six 60ml bottles of formula daily would be exposed to between 0.036-0.21 ug/kg/d of arsenic from formula.(5) This can also exceed the 0.10 ug/kg/d limit of an adult drinking 1L of water set by the WHO and EPA.

Based on its testing, the FDA on April 1, 2016 proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This level is based on FDA’s assessment of a large body of scientific data and is meant to reduce infant exposure to inorganic arsenic. Rice intake for infants, relative to body weight, primarily through the consumption of infant rice cereal, is about three times greater than for adults! (2)

The data that the FDA released in April of 2016, had been gathered to complete its review of arsenic in rice and rice products. The data were needed to enhance the agency’s understanding of arsenic in infant rice cereals. What it shows are the levels of inorganic arsenic in 76 rice-only cereals for infants and almost 36 multigrain and non-rice infant cereals and other foods commonly eaten by infants and toddlers. The FDA also tested 14 categories (more than 400 samples) of other foods commonly eaten by infants and toddlers. These new samples are in addition to the approximately 1300 samples of rice and rice products the FDA previously tested in 2013.(2)

The FDA’s data show that nearly half or 47 percent of infant rice cereals sampled from retail stores in 2014 met the agency’s proposed action level of 100 ppb inorganic arsenic and a majority (78 percent) was at or below 110 ppb inorganic arsenic.(2)

The proposed limit stems from analysis of scientific studies showing an association between adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurological effects in early life associated with inorganic arsenic exposure.(2)

So, what can we do?

It’s impossible to avoid rice altogether. For many people it is a staple in the diet and important for those who have gluten sensitivities, infants with dairy sensitivities and the list goes on.

Here are a few things to keep in mind though to minimize arsenic exposures from rice:

  1. Avoid giving rice drinks to infants and young children.(1)

  2. Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for baby but it shouldn’t be the only source, and does not need to be the first source. Other fortified infant cereals include oat, barley and multigrain. Feed your baby iron-fortified cereals to be sure he/she is receiving enough of this important nutrient. Also, for moms who are breastfeeding, ensure you are having enough iron to pass to your baby this way.

  3. Vary the grains that you eat and limit the number of servings of rice or rice products per week. Get your carbohydrates from things like quinoa, potatoes, buckwheat and amaranth.

  4. Remember, rinsing has a minimal effect on the arsenic content of the cooked grain.(6) Thoroughly rinse your rice and cook it in five to six times the volume of water than rice and drain the excess water. In reports, this has shown to be able to reduce the arsenic content by approximately half but they may lower the nutritional value. It can actually reduce the level of folate, iron, niacin and thiamin by 50-70 percent. (6)

  5. For larger changes to occur, we need to continue to demand more strict regulation of our food from our government.