The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Friday, November 23, 2012

Arsenic and Old Rice

There’s a new villain in town, and its name is arsenic.
You probably remember reading about high levels of arsenic found in apple and grape juice. Consumer Reports ran a similar investigation on rice and discovered “measurable amounts” of arsenic in nearly all of their 200 samples.
Before I go into what this means for our health or explain how arsenic ends up in our rice supply, let me describe the two different types of arsenic: organic and inorganic.
According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), arsenic is “a semi-metallic element found in soils, groundwater, surface water, air, and some foods.” It occurs naturally and is usually found combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. When combined with these elements, it’s referred to as inorganic arsenic. When arsenic is combined with carbon and hydrogen, it’s called organic arsenic.

Most of the time, organic and inorganic arsenic compounds don’t have a taste or a scent, and are impossible to detect in food, water, or air. Arsenic is no longer produced in the U.S. and is imported from other countries. Most of it is used to preserve wood so it doesn’t rot. You’ve probably heard of the term “pressure-treated wood.” In 2003, manufacturers quit producing this type of wood for play structures, decks, picnic tables, and other items sold for use in residential areas. Inorganic arsenic was once used as a pesticide in cotton and orchard fields, although now organic compounds are used, mostly on cotton plantations.

What I found interesting is that arsenic can change form. It can become attached to or separated from particles. But it cannot be destroyed. And guess what? It’s everywhere. It becomes carried on the air. It washes into lakes and streams. Some fish and shellfish take in arsenic, although most of the time it’s in a less harmful organic form. We are exposed to arsenic through eating, drinking, and breathing.

Most of the arsenic we take in comes from food, with seafood being the most predominant. Rice and rice cereal, mushrooms, and poultry often contain arsenic as well. According to the EPA, people generally take in about 50 micrograms of organic arsenic (from several different sources) a day. We take in the more dangerous type of arsenic, inorganic arsenic, a much smaller amount; generally 3.5 micrograms a day. Both organic and inorganic leave the body through urine.

Consuming high amounts of inorganic arsenic can kill you. Swallowing lower levels may cause nausea, stomachaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can also cause a lower production of red and white blood cells, which creates fatigue, abnormal heartbeats, nerve problems, and blood vessel damage. Long-term exposure can cause skin cancer, warts on the palms, soles, and torso, and an increased risk of liver, bladder, and lung cancer.

The EPA mentions that there is very little information on how organic arsenic affects humans. It’s considered less harmful than inorganic, although long-term exposure in animals has shown to result in diarrhea and in kidney damage.

Now that you’re aware of what organic and inorganic arsenic is and where it’s found, I’ll go into detail about what Consumer Reports found in its analysis.

First of all, they discovered that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri , and Texas had higher levels of both organic and inorganic arsenic in their tests than rice samples from any other place. In general, brown rice contained more inorganic arsenic than white rice. Why? Because only the hull is removed in brown rice. The bran that remains has a high concentration of arsenic. When this bran is removed, so is some of the arsenic. (Consumer Reports November 2012 p. 22, 24)

So how did the inorganic arsenic end up in our rice? Insecticides. As usual, man has come up with a way to both keep our food safe from bugs and parasites and poison us, all at the same time. The use of these pesticides was banned in the 1980s, but as I pointed out earlier, you can’t get rid of arsenic. And now it lingers in our soil. The same soil where we grow our food. Also, and this is ludicrous to me, arsenic is permitted for use in animal feed for a purpose similar to antibiotics. The fertilizer produced from these animals contaminates crops with arsenic.

If you’d like to know how much rice is considered safe for children and adults to consume, check out this Huffington Post article:

Okay, that concludes my research on the Consumer Reports findings. Let’s take a look at tests the FDA performed. First of all, let me stress that there isn’t any FDA approved limit for arsenic in most food. But here is what the FDA states on its website: “The FDA has collected and tested rice for total arsenic for about 20 years. On September 19, 2012, the FDA released the first analytical results of nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products tested for both total and inorganic arsenic. The FDA is collecting and analyzing more than 1,000 additional rice and rice product samples, and will post additional data as results become available.”

The website mentions that their analysis is consistent with the findings from Consumer Reports. However, it is yet to be proven that consuming great amounts of rice or rice products causes the types of illnesses associated with arsenic. The FDA is continuing its study on arsenic in rice, but at this time does not feel the public needs to be alarmed. They stress that people should eat a balanced diet with a variety of grains.

The FDA found that the average rice or rice product contained 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Although the FDA doesn’t have a safety standard for arsenic in food at this time, it has set the safety level for water at 10 micrograms in one liter of bottled water or 10 parts per billion (ppb), which was adopted from the EPA’s standard. So if you consume one serving of rice, you are well within the limits of safety according to this measure. Two servings may put you over the limit, depending on the levels of arsenic within the product. This limit was set in 2001.

The EPA states that in drinking water, inorganic arsenic is more prevalent than organic arsenic. They linked arsenic in drinking water to the health risks I mentioned earlier, thus set this standard to protect consumers.

There is still more research to be done, but as it stands now, here is a recap of my findings:

The EPA found a connection between health risks and arsenic in water. Rice is grown in water. It absorbs both organic and inorganic arsenic well. Inorganic arsenic can cause cancer. Organic arsenic is less toxic. It cannot be proven that consuming rice or rice products cause cancer. There is no set standard of how much arsenic in rice is safe for consumption. If using the guidelines given for water consumption, most levels in one serving of rice are safe for adults and children. (Remember, a serving for children is less than a serving for adults. Check labels to determine how much one serving is for individuals.)

This is another case of possible sensationalism mixed with a need to be aware of what one is putting into his or her body. Until more research is done, we won’t know if consuming large quantities of rice over a lifetime may be a health risk. But I will leave you with one more finding I discovered. In America, the liver and stomach cancer incidences and death rates are higher for Asians and Pacific Islanders than for any other ethnic group. According to, one cause is a bacterium called H. pylori. But I want to put this thought out there…what if one of the reasons the Asian population has more occurrences of stomach cancer is because they consume more rice than some other ethnic groups? I’d be curious to know if anyone has done any research on this. So far I have not found any sources that can provide me any information on this matter. But if I do, you will be the first to know.

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