What You Didn’t Know About Rice -Tips to Lower Arsenic Levels-

An element with widely recognized toxicity, arsenic is most often associated with groundwater contamination, particularly in places such as India. However, mounting evidence suggests that exposures in the United States are not to be trivialized. This is true in spite of the decades-old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Safe Drinking Water Act. How can this be? Because arsenic in water isn’t the issue for most Americans, it’s the arsenic in food. And currently no U.S. regulations exist for monitoring arsenic in food. What is the main food to look out for, you ask? Unfortunately, a food that has become a staple in our diets; that is, rice. And among rice crops grown around the world, U.S. rice has the highest arsenic levels. In this article, I’ll discuss why that is and what specifically the health effects of arsenic exposure are. I’ll then highlight how you can reduce your arsenic exposure without having to abandon your favorite rice dishes.

Arsenic is a semi-metallic element that, while naturally occurring, also enters the environment through pesticide spraying and other industrial processes. In its inorganic form, arsenic is recognized to be a Level 1 human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA, linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate. Non-cancer toxicity can produce discolored skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness in the hands and feet, partial paralysis, and even blindness. In other words, arsenic is a chemical you want to avoid! And according to recent studies, there appears no safe level of exposure. That is, your risk of developing cancer is proportional to your arsenic intake. What’s more, the average person in the U.S. consumes about a half cup of rice per day. Given the arsenic levels in some U.S. grown rice crops, this equates to drinking one liter of water containing 10 ppb arsenic (10 ppb is the maximum arsenic allowed in U.S. drinking water by law). Clearly then, arsenic exposure through rice warrants some concern.

Arsenic exposure is of particular importance to pregnant women as this chemical can easily cross the placental barrier. On the bright side, studies show that arsenic does not readily enter breast milk. So once the baby is born, one needn’t worry about exposure through breastfeeding. In fact, reports show breast milk to contain less arsenic than milk formulas, suggesting that breast feeding is actually more ideal.

So how is arsenic turning up in our rice? First, due to the crops physiology as well as the biogeochemistry of the rice patty fields, rice itself tends to preferentially absorb arsenic relative to other crops. That U.S. rice has the highest arsenic levels, however, is largely thanks to the agricultural industry’s historic spraying of arsenic pesticides to cotton fields and orchards. Unlike many toxic agents that break down over time, arsenic is an element and therefore does not deteriorate. In other words, once released to the environment, it’s there to stay. Not surprisingly then, many U.S. agricultural fields remain contaminated with arsenic.

At this point, you’re probably pondering an important question; “what is the key to reducing arsenic in rice?” Fortunately, it’s really only a matter of cooking technique, involving just a few simple adjustments of habit. First, it’s important to rinse your rice prior to cooking. Rinsing rice in water at a 2.5:1 water/rice ratio prior to cooking can reduce total arsenic levels by 10%. Second, and even more importantly, be sure to cook your rice in excess water. Most people are used to cooking rice until all the water has boiled off, at which point the rice begins to steam. While popular, this cooking method unfortunately does nothing to remove arsenic. Instead, cook your rice with an extra cup or two of water and then pour off the excess water once the rice is cooked. This can reduce your arsenic exposure by a whopping 40%! How does this happen? When your rice is cooking, much of the arsenic leaches out of the rice and into the surrounding water. If you let the water boil off completely, this arsenic just rebinds to the rice, not removing any arsenic. If, however, you cook rice with extra water and pour out the excess before it has all evaporated, you are also pouring out much of the arsenic.

What if you prefer the steam process from the original cooking method? Well you can still use this process, albeit with a minor adjustment. When pouring off the excess water, retain just enough water in the pot to complete the steam process. You will have sent most of the arsenic down the drain, while still being able to steam the rice. Keep in mind that cooking rice in excess water is inherently more wasteful of water and energy, and also takes longer, compared to the normal method. So be sure not to overdo it with the excess water. If you’re cooking one cup of rice in about three cups of water, adding just an extra cup or so of water should be sufficient.

Through this article, I don’t want to downplay the role of groundwater in arsenic exposure, particularly if you live in states such as New Hampshire which have high bedrock arsenic. In such areas, it is important to keep in mind that the Safe Drinking Water Act only regulates drinking water municipalities serving greater than 25 homes. So if you drink water from a small or private well, it’s worth getting your water tested. For everyone else, however, the most likely source of your arsenic exposure is through eating rice.

It is worth noting that brown rice reportedly has higher arsenic levels than white rice. Given the nutritional benefits of brown rice compared to white, however, I wouldn’t recommend abandoning brown rice in the name of arsenic exposure. Rather, I would recommend employing the above cooking techniques, through which you achieve the best of both worlds. Finally, while cooking technique can do a lot to reduce arsenic, if rice makes up a large fraction of your diet it certainly isn’t a bad idea to replace part of your rice consumption with alternative grains (e.g. whole grain pasta, oatmeal, corn, barley). Importantly, choose healthy substitutes such as whole grains, which reduce your risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases. And with that, cheers to good health!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to join my blog at ToxicTalks.com for related topics!


-Shahir Masri, Sc.M.

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