I first heard of arsenic from the movies. It was an effective way to poison someone, and it went with old lace. Recently, we were warned about arsenic content in apple and grape juices, and now Consumer Reports has published findings about “troublesome” levels of arsenic in rice and rice products, from baby cereal to pasta. Reports such as these often lead people to question what foods are actually safe these days—and specifically with rice—can we still eat it?
A more fundamental question is what is arsenic and where does it comes from?
There are actually two different types of arsenic at play here: organic arsenic, which occurs naturally in the Earth and is supposedly not quite as toxic to our bodies as inorganic arsenic, which is manmade and the result of practices such as coal-burning or pesticide use. The danger is that inorganic arsenic has been linked to several different types of cancers, including skin, bladder, and lung, as well as heart disease and developmental problems.
Inorganic arsenic is actually present in many healthful foods as well as our drinking water but in amounts generally regarded as safe by the FDA (that is ten parts per billion). However, rice absorbs much more arsenic than other foods at levels above what is considered safe, thereby putting rice under the proverbial microscope.
Although the FDA has begun testing thousands of rice and rice-derived products, which could take several years, the agency is reluctant to offer guidelines for consuming rice.
So what should we do in the meantime? Although the jury is still out, I am not avoiding rice completely. I like what Dr. David Katz imparted: “Cancer rates are generally low where rice intake is highest.” But the rest of the world also prepares rice differently from the way we do, and, coincidentally, these methods are now recommended as strategies to reduce the arsenic content in rice and your diet.
5 Tips to Reduce Arsenic
1. Buy Imported Rices. Rice from the Southern U.S. (Arkansas, Texas) seems to have the highest concentration of arsenic. California rice has less, but the rice, especially basmati and jasmine varieties, from Thailand and India have the least.
2. Rinse It. Rinsing your rice in water helps to reduce arsenic by about twenty-five percent.
3. Soak It. Soaking your rice anywhere from one to eight hours will not only reduce the arsenic in the rice but also make the grain more digestible.
4. Cook It in Copious Amounts of Water. Instead of cooking one cup of rice in two cups of water, treat it like pasta and boil it in lots of water until tender.
5. Eat a Wide Variety of Foods. The concern over arsenic and rice underscores the notion that an important component of a healthful diet is to consume a wide variety of foods, not only to ensure consumption of the full spectrum of nutrients, but also to limit overexposure to harmful toxins. Alternatives to whole rice include: quinoa, millet, spelt, wheat berries, and farro.
If you are concerned about rice or your favorite rice products, contact the manufacturer, who should be willing to tell you if their products have been tested and how much arsenic has been discovered. At the end of the day, we may think of arsenic as a dirty word, but there are plenty of other toxins we consume liberally without thinking twice.