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Arsenic in rice may pose health hazard

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
arsenic, white rice, brown rice, carcinogen, toxin, Consumer Reports

Arsenic is thought to be present in rice at higher levels than most other foods because it is grown in water on the ground; thus, providing optimal conditions for the contaminant to be absorbed in the rice. Currently, there are no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.

On September 19, Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, released a study of the arsenic content of rice and called for federal standards regarding safe levels.

Brown rice is held to be a healthier alternative to brown rice. Compared with brown rice, white rice has a lower content of many nutrients including fiber, magnesium, and vitamins, some of which, particularly fiber and magnesium, are thought to protect against diabetes. However, the Consumers Union study found higher levels of arsenic in brown rice than white rice; this is a result of how the different types are processed. The consumer advocacy organization also found higher levels in rice produced in Southern US states than in rice from California or Asia. Consumer Reports tested 223 individual samples and found levels up to 8.7 micrograms.

Consumer Reports notes that it is almost impossible to define how dangerous these levels are without a benchmark from the federal government. Consumer Reports uses New Jersey's drinking water standard––a maximum of 5 micrograms in a liter of water - as comparison because it is one of the strictest in the nation. However, it is unclear how accurate it is to compare arsenic levels in water and arsenic levels in rice. Most individuals consume more water than rice; therefore, drinking water standards may need to be more stringent.

Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union noted that the group is not trying to alarm rice eaters and parents feeding their children rice; rather, its goal is to educate them so they can diversify their diets. She noted that consumers should be more protected since arsenic is a known carcinogen; thus, it is logical to have standard for rice. Therefore, it is urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set standards.

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On September 19, on the heels of the release of the Consumers Union Study, the FDA released the findings of 200 of 1,200 samples taken. The FDA’s analysis reported average levels of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving, which was comparable to the 8.7 micrograms found in the Consumers Union study. The FDA will not complete its study until the end of the year; thus, it will not come to any conclusions in 2012.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms, organic and inorganic. According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. However, inorganic arsenic, the type found in some pesticides and insecticides, can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or over a long period.

At present, it is unclear how much organic and inorganic arsenic rice eaters are consuming, and whether those levels are dangerous. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted that consumers should not stop eating rice; however, she does encourage a diverse diet just in case. She explained, “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains; not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”

Take home message:
Many Asians consume large amounts of rice on a regular basis; thus, this study is of particular importance to them. Rice is a common type of baby food; thus, parents should consider decreasing the amounts given to their children. The report notes that rice from California and Asia has lower levels of arsenic; thus, if possible, try to purchase rice from these regions.

Reference: Consumer Reports

See also: White rice and diabetes risk