Arsenic in Rice: What you Should Know

By Dr. Jennifer Tufenkian

When I was a vegetarian, my comfort food of choice was a big bowl of steaming brown short-grain rice topped with nutritional yeast and tamari. I have fond memories of sitting with my son on our papasan chair when he was three, sharing a bowl with him; we'd take turns chasing the little grains of rice around with chopsticks. These days a bowl of rice like that is truly a rare treat — my diet now is much lower in carbs than it was back then — but when we do eat grains, rice is one of our staples, as it is for many of my patients, especially those who need to eat gluten-free. (Our family has been eating gluten-free for more than a decade.)

So it was a hard hit in my reality when I found out that the amount of arsenic in rice is potentially dangerous. I know we live in a toxic world, but I was still shocked to find that a staple food harbors such high levels of a known carcinogen. (There is no federal limit for arsenic levels in food, although there are limits to the levels in drinking water.) I rapidly began to evaluate how much rice my son was eating: rice, rice toast, rice protein in bars or smoothies, rice pasta, rice cakes, rice crackers, and the occasional rice-milk steamer.

In 2012, Consumer Reports published an excellent article and chart that summarizes the levels of inorganic and organic arsenic in different brands of rice. As they point out, inorganic arsenic is the most toxic form, and the EPA "assumes there is ... no 'safe' level of exposure to inorganic arsenic," which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and has been linked to skin, lung, and bladder cancer in humans. Looking at the chart, I was horrified to see how much arsenic my son has probably been ingesting — over the course of his entire life.

So what can we do? If you don't eat a lot of rice, following the recommendations made by Consumer Reports is a good place to start. If you do eat a lot, here are some suggestions:

Get tested for arsenic. A heavy metal urine test is a good option. If your levels are high, oral chelation is the known route to detox metals from the body. Testing is especially important for pregnant women and children.

If possible, buy rice that has a lower level of arsenic in it, based on Consumer Reports' findings or on your own research. I'm also seeking out farms that may sell rice with lower levels of arsenic. Some farms are devoting several years to gathering data and figuring out ways to lessen the toxic load in their crops. If I find some reliable information, I will post it on our website.

Rinse rice before cooking, then cook using a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice, and drain the excess water afterward. This will remove some of the nutrients in the rice, but has also been shown to reduce the amount of inorganic arsenic by about 30 percent.

Arsenic is eliminated from the body by binding to minerals, especially selenium, zinc, magnesium, and sulphur-containing compounds. It is then largely eliminated via the kidneys. Some bodies excrete toxins more efficiently than others. Your ND can help you make sure you are optimizing your routes of elimination. Some foods to eat: brazil nuts, which contain selenium; pumpkin seeds, which contain zinc; and greens, which are full of many minerals. Sulphur-containing foods include eggs, onion, and garlic.

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. Keep eating healthy whole foods, using a range of grains & seeds, protein sources, fruits, and vegetables. As much as possible, avoid eating processed foods containing rice on a daily basis, such as cereals, bread, pasta, rice milk, protein powders, energy bars, crackers, and the like. Here are some alternatives we use in my family:

  • Bread: Happy Campers bread, made locally in Tigard, is rice-free.
  • Pasta: Use 100% quinoa or buckwheat pasta, or even better, spaghetti squash.
  • Non-dairy milk: Try unsweetened hemp milk, nut milks, or coconut milk instead.
  • Protein powder: Pea protein is a good alternative to rice protein for smoothies: I've been using Pure Pea (available at the clinic or online). Or grind up soaked nuts and seeds as a protein base for smoothies.
  • Grains & Seeds: Try millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff—or use steamed green cabbage as the base of a curry.
  • Energy bars: I still consider Lara Bars the best because they're only nuts and fruit and spices. Or pack whole nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables for an even healthier snack.

When you must, moderation is key. The federal limit for the amount of arsenic in drinking water, set by the Environmental Protection agency, is 10 PPB. The equivalent to that, in terms of rice consumption, is about 1/2 cup dry organic rice. So, if you are craving rice with your dinner just keep in this measurement in mind and moderate how much you eat. 

Advocate for federal limits on the levels of arsenic in food. Educate yourself and others, write letters to the editor, and follow the news around the issue online. We can all do this, whether we eat a lot of rice or just a little. Here are additional links to studies and articles:

Lundberg Family Farms Resource Library: Arsenic in Food

WebMD: Eating Rice May Raise Arsenic Levels

Although my initial response to the news last year about arsenic in rice was very emotional, I've since come around to a more even-keeled attitude. As we learn that one food after another is full of toxins, the most pressing concern is how we can feed ourselves safely. However discouraging the news might be, it doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. We can still support the body as much as possible by giving it good nutrients and allowing it to detoxify. Detoxifying is a big part of what we can do to maintain our health: eating a varied diet that includes lots of vegetables, drinking water, taking probiotics, exercising, deep breathing, and getting good sleep all help remove toxins from the body. Having fun and enjoying life is healthful too! In that spirit, this newsletter includes some delicious recipes for you and your family that are free of both rice and gluten.


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