Exactly How Freaked Out Should You Be By the Fact That There's Arsenic In Your Rice?

A new study on arsenic has the FDA looking into the risks associated with a grain-heavy diet.
Looking for ways to reduce the amount of arsenic in your rice? We've got easy tips. (Photo: Don Mason/Getty Images)
Sep 20, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Rice seems so innocent. Those little white grains are the perfect sidekick to loads of tasty meals, from hearty stirfries and spicy curries to gooey enchildadas. But add rice to your meal too often, and you might be putting yourself at risk of arsenic poisoning, warns a new report from Consumer Reports.

Arsenic is a semi-metallic chemical that occurs naturally in the environment, but at elevated levels, it can be very harmful to human health. Arsenic poisoning can cause headaches, confusion, and drowsiness in its early stages, and vomiting, blood in urine, stomach pain, and convulsions as it progress. Eventually, a coma and death may follow. Prolonged exposure to arsenic has also been linked to cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and digestive problems, according to the BBC.

Testing more than 60 rice and rice products, Consumer Report researchers determined that eating rice just once per day can elevate arsenic levels in the body by 44 percent. Eat it twice per day, and your body could experience a 70 percent increase. Think you're safe if you're eating organic rice? Think again -- they tested no better.

MORE: FDA Says Arsenic Levels in Apple Juice Are A-OK

Test foods included cereal for babies and adults, pastas, drinks, and of course, rice in its plain form as a whole grain. Many of the items had levels of arsenic that are "worrisome," said Consumer Reports, up to 1.5 times more than the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for drinking water.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average American eats a half a cup of rice per day. Asian Americans consume on average more than two cups per day.

The study didn't call out companies with risky products, but Nestle, which makes Gerber baby foods, released a statement saying its products were safe because it sources ingredients from California, where it says arsenic levels in soil are the lowest in the country. The company says it  made the decision based on consumer concerns.

In their own research, Consumer Reports researchers found highest arsenic levels in rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas.

So, this all sounds pretty alarming. Should you worry?

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Marta Hamburg says no.

"We are not recommending that consumers need to change their consumption of rice products in dramatic ways," Hamburg told ABC News, adding that the best thing to do is keep a balanced diet and maintain good nutrition.

Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports, begged to differ, saying that he and his team believe that proactive measures to moderate rice consumption are a good idea. Rice eaters should only have one serving per day, they say, particularly babies. Kids under five years old should not consume rice drinks at all.

Consumer Reports also urges regulation on arsenic levels in rice. As of December 2011, China had statutory limits on arsenic content in rice, but the U.S and E.U. did not.

There is an easy way to reduce levels at home. First, rinse your rice. Then, instead of the normal 2-1 water to rice ration, boil your rice at a 6-1 water to rice ratio (for example, 1 cup of rice per six cups of water). That'll reduce 30 percent of the arsenic.

Or choose white rice. It doesn't have the nutritional value of brown rice, but because its outer shell is polished off during processing, it contains less arsenic.

Want to avoid rice entirely until more evidence is in? TakePart's own weekly food advice columnist Jane Lear has a few ideas to get a whole grain fix, including rye, kamut, whole wheat berries, spelt, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat

How much rice do you eat daily? Did you know it might pose a health risk? Let us know in the comments section below.

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

Project Katrina: A Decade of Resilience in New Orleans