Brown rice is right up there with alfalfa sprouts and goji berries in the list of most iconic “health foods”. But studies continue to point to high levels of arsenic in this natural foods staple. While high levels of arsenic in any food is distressing, it is especially shocking to find it in a food used in so many baby foods and culturally important dishes. Before giving up on rice altogether, though, here is some background information.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is present in our soil and water. It is also produced synthetically and used in animal (poultry) drugs and pesticides. Likely because of a long history of growing cotton and poultry, the southern United States has the highest levels of arsenic in soil. Most of our domestically grown rice is from this region.
Rice is grown in paddies, or flooded fields, and arsenic is easily dissolved in this water and taken up into the rice plants and stored primarily in the rice bran. Because the bran is removed when refining brown rice, we see lower levels of arsenic in white rice than brown rice.
Arsenic is found in an “organic” form (meaning bonded to carbon- nothing to do with organic agriculture) and an “inorganic” form. Most scientists agree that the organic form is not stored in the body, while the inorganic form is cause for concern.
Too much inorganic arsenic in our bodies can certainly cause problems. Arsenic is notorious as a deadly poison in high concentrations. In lower concentrations it is a known carcinogen. There have long been safe levels set for arsenic in drinking water, but so far no such levels have been set for foods or drinks. Holding foods to the same standard as drinking water may not make sense, since we tend to consume more water than servings of rice. But until the FDA establishes a limit, it can serve as a guideline.
According to the latest report from Consumers Union, inorganic arsenic was found in levels exceeding the strictest limit for water (5 parts per billion in New Jersey) in samples of a variety of rice products. There are some familiar brands on this list- some with levels far below the drinking water standard and some higher.
Until we know more, there are some steps we can take to minimize our risks from arsenic in rice products. Rice grown in California or Asia appears to have the lowest levels of arsenic, compared to rice grown in the southern United States. At Mississippi Market, we primarily source our rice from Lundberg Family Farms in California or from Asia. Just look for the “Lundberg” brand name on our bulk bins to be sure. To further reduce your risk, you can rinse your rise thoroughly before cooking and even cook your rice in extra water and then drain before serving.
White rice appears to have lower levels of arsenic than brown rice, but if switching to white rice, be sure to add other sources of whole grains and fiber to your diet to replace the brown rice. We also recommend exploring new grains and not depending too heavily on rice. Millet, quinoa, buckwheat and barley are all delicious grains that can be used as rice would- as a side dish or alongside a stir-fry.
While rice milk, cereals, gluten-free rice breads and brown rice syrup are also potential sources of arsenic, there are plenty of alternative products to keep your diet varied. With products like coconut milk & almond milk, buckwheat bread and sorghum syrup, this arsenic issue might just introduce you to some new favorite foods.
We will be following this research as it emerges and continuing to work with reputable companies like Lundberg who already test for arsenic in their products. If you would like to see the FDA quickly establish a safe limit for arsenic in foods and drinks, visit the Consumers Union to find out how to take action.