A recent report released by the FDA found arsenic levels in 200 rice samples--including organic rice--to be higher than the allowable arsenic standard for drinking water: 10 parts per billion. While the FDA has not made any formal dietary change recommendations to avoid arsenic exposure, a correlating study released by Consumer Reports suggests eating rice once per day can increase arsenic levels by 44 percent! The study also makes some helpful suggestions for limiting that risk, especially for children.
Particularly in the South, the locale of some of the nation's leading poultry producers, chicken manure and waste is used to fertilize organic rice farms. The chicken are fed arsenic-laced food in order to pinken their flesh (thought to appeal to consumers) and prevent certain infections. The arsenic is then leached into the ground. Additionally, many of the Southern rice farms are former cotton plantations and arsenic was often used to prevent and treat weevil infestations in cotton fields. On top of these arsenic sources, rice is particularly prone to leaching arsenic out of the soil, creating a perfect storm for contamination.
The contamination has been a known factor since at least 2009, due to an EPA study at that time. The FDA is being urged by consumer watchdog groups to set a limit on the amount of arsenic that can be allowed in foods. In late 2011, the FDA projected it would have an in-depth report by mid-2012 on arsenic contamination of rice, and perhaps a recommendation for arsenic limits. That report was delayed and is now projected for the end of 2012.
Consumer Reports recommends children avoid rice-based drinks altogether and limit servings of rice to one per week, and servings of rice-based products to two per week. Infant rice cereal is recommended to be limited to one serving per day. Adult consumption recommendations are set at two servings of rice per week.
What can you do to reduce your family's risk?
- Change the way you prepare rice. Rinse rice before cooking. Use a 6:1 ratio of water to raw rice and drain after cooking. While this method may cause you to lose some of the rice's nutrients, it has also been shown to reduce inorganic arsenic by up to 30 percent.
- Test your water for arsenic, particularly if you aren't connected to public water.
- Wash all of your fruits and vegetables and eat a varied diet. Some juices are higher in arsenic as well, such as grape and apple juice. You'll want to consider other high-arsenic foods and juices you consume when deciding whether to limit your rice intake.
- Eat other grains. Particularly if you normally eat rice more than three times per week, vary your grains and use wheat, oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth or other lower-arsenic grains in place of rice when you can.
Those on gluten-free diets may be at particular risk because brown rice pasta, brown rice, and brown rice syrup, are more of a staple for individuals who cannot consume wheat. Gluten-free families will want to consider replacing some servings of rice with gluten-free grains like quinoa, millet and amaranth.
If you're concerned your family may not like the taste of the new grains, try mixing your rice with a new grain to reduce the amount of rice you're eating per serving. Try grain blends like a Brown Rice and Quinoa Blend.
The FDA's analysis of the initial samples found average levels of inorganic arsenic for the various rice and rice products of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Serving sizes varied depending on the rice product (for example, one serving of non-Basmati rice was equal to one cup cooked). A summary of the initial 200 sample findings can be found at fda.gov.
It is important to note that while Consumer Reports recommends limiting rice intake, the FDA has not yet taken this step.
“We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. That’s why the FDA has prioritized analyzing arsenic levels in rice. The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., in a press release. “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.”
Until the FDA's expected report is released this winter and until the FDA sets limits on rice contamination levels, consumers will need to make their own decisions about mitigating arsenic contamination for their families.
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