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Brown Rice and Arsenic

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Several people have asked lately about brown rice and arsenic – is brown rice safe or is it just one more food that we need to worry about and possible avoid?

Consumer Report issued a report last November focused on high levels of arsenic in rice, particularly brown rice.  This followed an earlier report , January 2012, in which they reported on the high levels of arsenic in fruit juices, particularly apple and grape juice.  So what’s the deal?

Why and how is arsenic in our food supply?

There are 2 types of arsenic:  organic and inorganic.  Each is a naturally occurring element.  Organic arsenic is found mostly in fish and shellfish.  Inorganic arsenic compounds are found mostly in soil, sediment, and groundwater and have been used in various products from wood preservatives to fertilizers and pesticides.  Because arsenic is naturally occurring, certain amounts will naturally be found in food.  The FDA measures arsenic in our water supply and sets limits, but it has not set limits on arsenic levels in anything else, to date

The current health concern is about high levels of inorganic arsenic in certain crops (among these some fruits and rice).  High levels of inorganic arsenic are more likely to present in soils which have previously been treated with fertilizers and/or pesticides containing inorganic arsenic (this is especially true in many Southern states where the boll weevil threatened cotton crops and such pesticides were used.)  Because rice is grown in flooded areas, it absorbs more of this inorganic arsenic in the growing process (apparently some fruits tend to absorb more as well).  So, not only does rice have a high level, but brown rice has an even higher level (in many cases that is).  When bran is removed for white rice, the process actually scrubs away part of the arsenic – in addition to the nutrition in the bran!

Is this a problem?

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A report issued by the US EPA states that “Chronic inorganic arsenic exposure is known to be associated with adverse health effects on several systems of the body…” and also states that inorganic arsenic “is classified by the U.S. EPA as a known human carcinogen…”  So, yes, overexposure to or ingestion of too much arsenic can be a problem (like death, remember “Arsenic and Old Lace?”)  But is eating brown rice and drinking apple juice cause for concern?  Probably not, if you limit your intake (good advice for so many other things in life!)  While the FDA ponders this question, Consumer Report provides its recommendation on rice consumption near the end of its report.

We continue to eat brown rice in our home, limiting consumption per the guidelines.  I believe that the positive nutritional value of brown rice outweighs the risk as long as we eat it in moderation.

Tips for Eating Brown Rice

  • Purchase rice grown in California rather than rice grown in Mississippi or Louisiana (where boll weevils were a problem and pesticides with inorganic arsenic were used).  
  • Rinse the rice well before cooking it (until water runs clear).
  • Cook in additional water and then drain water off (some arsenic will drain with the water).
  • If you love rice, substitute white rice for some dishes.
  • Vary your grains – use quinoa, bulgar, wheat-berries, for example.
  • Limit your exposure by limiting consumption.
  • If you have children (especially infants) remember that many baby cereals are rice-based so vary your child’s foods (recommendations also on Consumer Report page.)
  • Remember that because a product is organic does not mean that it is free of inorganic arsenic – the compound may be present in the soil from pesticide treatments years ago and organic farming standards would not remove it, unless additional steps are taken.

What’ Next?

It’s difficult (if not impossible) to eat healthy foods all of the time – just try taking a road trip on major US highways and locating healthy lunch spots.  So certainly we will hear of other risks involving all kinds of foods and each of us has to decide which risks to take.  I believe that consuming brown rice in moderation is beneficial from a nutritional standpoint and better than many alternatives – I’m glad I know the risks and can make a more informed judgement.

Want Even More Arsenic?

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Try some inorganic chicken or beef.  I will be brief on this subject in this post.  But before you give up brown rice because of possible arsenic contamination, remember that in order to avoid/limit arsenic in your diet, a lot of other  products will come off of your shopping list.  Follow this trail:

  • Poultry growers feed arsenic laced food to their chickens (not all do, some have company restrictions against such arsenic laced foods and it would not be allowed in organic chicken growing).
  • Cattle growers feed “poultry litter” to their cows – this includes droppings, feathers and other yummy tidbits.
  • Arsenic remains in chickens and beef – we buy, we eat!

Here’s the link if you want to read more now about arsenic in chickens.







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