I didn’t believe it either when I read an article recently about arsenic in rice. Yet it seems to be true, which is quite a concern for us because we eat rice almost every day. Many of the popular snacks for kids contain rice. Rice cereal is typically the first solid food given to babies. Some toddler formula, claiming to be organic, contain Organic Brown Rice Syrup (ORBS). Bottom line, rice is very common in both adult and baby foods which makes the issue of arsenic in rice a big concern for parents.
No wonder there was quite a coverage in the news media early this year when a study was published by researchers at Dartmouth which showed high amounts of inorganic arsenic (the bad kind) in formula and food products containing ORBS. Sure it made big news and caused a lot of anxiety for a while. Even Dr. Oz demonized apple juice to make a point about arsenic in a common foods!
But then, like always, the media moved on to other more alarming news. Meanwhile, parents were left without any solid guidance wondering if they were inadvertently poisoning their kids. Turns out, even the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) does not have any guidance on the allowable level of arsenic in foods although the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has established a limit of 10 parts per billion in drinking water (which means that 1 L of drinking water cannot have more than 10 micrograms).
So what should a parent do? Here are a few suggestions:
Know the Facts
Arsenic is a common element in the soil, which means it can find its way into foods. The question is not if arsenic is present in the food supply, but how much of it is safe. There are toxic chemicals in everything we encounter, some naturally present, some because of industrial pollution. What we need is to know what chemicals are present and limit them to a safe level. In case of arsenic in food, such a level has not been established – but there is no reason to believe that our food is contaminated to such a high level that it poses a very high risk to our health.
Rice has been found to have the highest level of inorganic arsenic. There are several reasons for this – rice is grown in standing water, which may have been contaminated with arsenic. This situation exists in Bangladesh where very high levels of arsenic have been detected in well water. Arsenic containing pesticides are another source of arsenic contamination in soil and water. This situation exists in many areas in the southern US states such as Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, where rice is grown on fields previously used for cotton when arsenic based pesticides were common. Rice from California, on the other hand, has lower levels of arsenic.
Second reason why rice contains high levels of arsenic is because the rice plant, even if grown organically, absorbs arsenic from the soil very well. Turns out that arsenic is very similar to silicon, another element that the rice plant is very good at soaking up. If the soil and water in which rice is grown contains arsenic, then it will readily end up in the grain.
Minimize Consumption and Check the Source
I am not suggesting you give up on rice or rice containing foods completely. But keep it under control – like everything else, you need to consume these foods in moderation. How much is safe depends on the body weight – for adults, normal consumption of rice should be a couple of servings a day, not more than 100 g or so. According to recent estimates, people who eat more than 115 g of high arsenic rice (produced in southern US for example) can exceed the EPA drinking water limit.
It is even more of an issue for children because of their body weight. Limit the amount of foods from sources suspected of having harmful chemicals – this rule applies to everything, not just arsenic.
As I wrote before, it is important to check where the rice was produced. It is easier said than done, because this information is nearly impossible to find for processed foods. Basmati rice is considered to be a safe choice, although it is important to keep an eye on where it is coming from.
Consumer reports recently published data on arsenic in several brands of apple juice.
Watch for Latest Developments
Even though, there is no guidance from the FDA on safe arsenic levels, they seem to be working on it. FDA claims to routinely monitor arsenic in apple juice and now they have expanded the program to arsenic in rice and rice based foods. A study is expected to come out this year.
Bottom line – be informed, read the labels, check the source and consume in moderation.