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Credit: tamaki

The FDA estimated 17 per cent of dietary exposure to arsenic comes from rice

Arsenic levels in rice are worryingly high; here's how to protect your family

A friend sent me a recent news link that details, “worrisome levels of arsenic in rice” along with a frustrated, “what’s actually safe to feed to our kids these days?”

And after reading through the Consumer Reports study that found, “organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice and other types of rice products on grocery shelves contain arsenic,” I had to agree.

Arsenic in Rice?

Arsenic is compound found in the Earth’s crust. It occurs naturally throughout the environment – in water, air and soil – so it inevitably shows up in our water and in some foods.

We also add arsenic to the environment by burning fossil and using arsenic in pesticides (now outlawed, but it still shows up in manure), herbicides and wood preservatives.

And yet the fact that the arsenic is found in the soil doesn’t actually explain why so much of it ends up specifically in rice. The theory behind why rice absorbs so much arsenic (the FDA estimated 17 per cent of dietary exposure comes from rice) lays in the way rice is grown.

Arsenic is water soluble, so the flooded conditions that rice is cultivated in leads to its absorption, with much of the arsenic accumulating in the hull (the part that makes rice brown) and in the outer layers (rinsing rice well can remove 30 per cent of the rice's inorganic arsenic content).

Why is Arsenic a Problem?

Arsenic is a poison. Victorians favoured arsenic because in high doses it’s quite effective at killing people. In lower doses it’s known to cause skin, liver, lung, kidney, and bladder cancer. And that’s just the beginning: it’s also implicated in diabetes, liver disease, digestive problems and nervous system disorders.

It's unclear what impact the current levels of arsenic in rice will have. Currently the FDA is studying the issue and Health Canada is recommending people eat a varied diet.

How to Avoid Arsenic in Rice

Rice is a staple in many kitchens and knowingly consuming a poison is something we should be giving careful thought to. Our action here ought to be two-fold: we need more information, but while we wait for further studies, we also need to keep our kids safe. Here's how:

  • Check the list of products studied against what you have in your pantry, but keep in mind arsenic levels will change depending on where the rice has been sourced.
  • Rinse your rice.
  • Steer away from rice drinks (according to the report, in the United Kingdom, children younger than 4½ years are advised against having rice milk because of arsenic concerns) and heavily processed rice products that can’t be rinsed.
  • Eat a variety of different grains. Now is a great time to get your kids hooked on quinoa, millet or buckwheat.
  • Monitor your overall rice consumption. In our home we eat rice a couple of time a week, but we also eat rice crackers, rice cereal and rice pasta.