Updated: Mar 15, 2020
If the rice you eat is poisonous wouldn't you want to know?
Wouldn't you want to know what you can do about it?
The problem is...
Not all rice is safe to eat because of heavy metals like arsenic.
But thankfully there are ways to greatly reduce your exposure.
And the best part?
You won't have to give up rice.
In this article we will dive into:
The dangers of arsenic.
What rice is safest and what rice is least safe.
How to reduce arsenic during cooking.
All about food safety in regard to baby food.
We've seen the difference between white rice and brown rice here.
Brown rice clearly has more nutritional benefits. This makes sense if you think about it, because the outer layer of the rice kernel, where most of the nutrition resides, remains intact.
The story doesn’t quite end here yet, because...
Rice is notoriously susceptible to contamination.
What kind of contamination? Arsenic.
You want to know the irony?
Healthy eating involves eating brown rice, not white.
But guess what rice is more contaminated...
There is a catch though, so keep reading. It's a bit more complicated than that.
How serious of an issue is this contamination?
Contamination happens all around us, thanks to us - humans, leaving our marks on the environment.
Why should you care about rice contamination in particular?
is arsenic really something to worry about?
Arsenic is a natural component of the earth’s crust and is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land. It can be found in organic form and inorganic form.
It is highly toxic only in its inorganic form. When we talk about the toxicity of arsenic in this article, we are actually talking about this inorganic form.
How toxic is arsenic?
Inorganic arsenic is considered a first-level or category 1 carcinogen, which is the highest level of carcinogens.
If you are exposed to it long term, you're at an increased risk for:
Various cancers, including skin cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer and prostate cancer.
That's not all, because exposure to arsenic is also associated with changes in the digestive and cardiovascular system, lungs, blood and brain. It can furthermore affect your immune system, your nerves and your reproductive and developmental function. (1), (2)
And if that wasn't enough it can also give you garlic breath, even if you don't eat any garlic.
This last one doesn't sound quite as serious, but imagine going on a date with this condition.
It also goes together with passing garlic-like gas, (2) so chances are you might even cause harm to people nearby.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states we can get exposed to elevated levels of arsenic in a variety of ways:
through drinking contaminated water;
through using contaminated water in food preparation;
through irrigation of food crops;
through industrial processes;
through eating contaminated food;
and through smoking tobacco.
We're not aware how exactly arsenic can contribute to the development of cancer and what mechanism is responsible. Scientists all agree though, that the lower your exposure the better. (3)
Where else does arsenic come from?
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, but environmental levels of arsenic have been increased by the burning of fossil fuels and mining. In addition, arsenic has been used in fertilizers, wood preservatives, insecticides and herbicides. (3)
In many places arsenic has become prohibited or minimized as part of fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, but they still exist in the environment and in our groundwater to this day. (4)
Contamination of soils is often a result of deposition from smelting, coal burning, and agricultural pesticides. Agricultural pesticides represent a significant source of surface soil contamination. (5)
Some scientist back in 1927, already called it a dangerous practice, but were ignored and the practice continued for decades more. (6)
Historical use of arsenic based drugs in chicken and turkey production have been a chronic source of arsenic exposure for the U.S. population and these drugs could still be used legally in other parts of the world.
They are part of the animal feed and then end up in the animal and its manure. The manure is used as a fertilizer and contaminates the soil and the plants that grow in the soil.
For rice, we could simplify it like this:
Arsenic based drugs → animal feed → animal → animal manure → soil → rice plant. (7)
Why does rice get contaminated?
The main reason for rice being susceptible to arsenic contamination lies within the growing conditions of rice itself.
Soils in which rice plants are planted are often flooded. Flooded soils offer a unique environment for growth and nutrition of rice, but at the same time, these circumstances are also ideal for arsenic to be absorbed by the rice plants. (4)
While most crops don’t readily take up much arsenic from the ground, rice is unusually efficient at absorbing this element from the soil; it can absorb up to 10 times higher amounts than other grains. (5)
The concentration varies depending on the soil where the rice was cultivated and the type of rice. We will explore both of these further in the article. (3)
What rice is most contaminated?
If we could somehow know where the least and most contaminated rice comes from, we could let this information guide our purchasing decisions. Especially if we consume rice on the regular.
Different varieties from different locations have been tested.
Some difficulty lies within the fact that within one country different locations can have different levels of heavy metals in the soil. The U.S. is a good example of this, which you'll see in more detail below.
Despite this complication there are a few common denominators we could use to form a clearer view on this matter.
There are 3 main factors we need to address:
Although all rice from every single country tested, contained arsenic, rice tested from the U.S, China, Germany, Spain and Surinam topped the list in which highest quantities of arsenic were found. (8), (9)
That said, The U.S. is a special case, since the most contaminated rice comes from the southern states, whereas Californian rice is generally significantly less contaminated in comparison.
The reason for that is that cotton used to be largely produced in the southern states, for which arsenic containing pesticides were heavily favored. (10)
They really didn't want humanity to miss out on toxic rice, so they had to select specific species of rice that would be able to grow in these toxic soils, since most rice varieties would would not be able to grow. You'd think that was a clear enough sign, that something was wrong. (10)
Asian countries, with the exception of China, have relatively less contaminated rice in comparison to North America and Europe. (9)
What also seems to be to play a role in contamination is the variety of rice.
For some reason, longer grain varieties of rice seem to store more of the poisonous arsenic in their kernels.
Although brown rice's health benefits have demonstrated, that its significantly more favorable to consume than white rice, it does contain more arsenic. The outer layer of the the rice, or bran, is the place where most of the arsenic can be found.
It therefore deserves a closer look.
What we know from research, is that your exposure to arsenic can shoot up to 65%, if you eat a cup or more of white rice daily.
How do we know?
You can measure the arsenic in your urine.
How about brown rice eaters?
Apparently, it shoots up 65% as well. It seems that the arsenic in the bran of the rice is less bioavailable, meaning it gets absorbed relatively less.
It would be nice to compare groups and have them switch from white rice to brown and vice versa and compare their urine for arsenic. However, this is the best evidence we have so far.
How to reduce the arsenic in rice?
Are there ways to reduce the arsenic content in rice?
Normally, rice is cooked with relatively little water, where the ratio of rice to water can range from 1:1 to 1:2. We know, that this doesn't remove any of the arsenic. (12)
Fortunately, we can remove a significant part of the arsenic if we simply increase the amount of water. Basically, we need to treat rice as we would treat pasta and boil it with more water, before disregarding the cooking water once the rice is done.
How much water do we need exactly?
The ratio of rice to water that was used in tests was 1:6.
It's best if we combine it with rinsing, because rinsing contributes to the removal of arsenic as well. Rinsing multiple times may even help to further lower the arsenic content.
More than 40% of arsenic can be removed by using a combination of rinsing and boiling in the water ratio mentioned above. (10) That's a very worthwhile amount, and even more so if you consume rice frequently.
Arsenic in rice products that can't be reduced
Rice is used for many products nowadays.
Think of rice cereals, rice waffles or crackers, rice milk, infant food, rice pasta, etc.
We just learned that arsenic can leak partly into the cooking water and can be discarded that way. You can probably imagine then, that food preparations where no water comes into play aren't able to get rid of arsenic.
Cereal will have water added, but generally none will be discarded. This includes infant food.
Consumer reports in the U.S. discovered that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives, such as oatmeal. These are worrisome amounts. (13)
The arsenic in rice cakes and waffles cannot be reduced.
Rice milk technically could have a part of the arsenic removed if made by oneself, but several commercial rice milks tested with rice originating from Europe, contain up to 3 times the limit for drinking water set by the EU. (14)
Consumer reports in the U.S. stated several years ago, that their findings showed a real need for federal standards for this toxin, arsenic. (13)
However, globally there aren't clear standards everywhere, and if there are, they aren't regulated that well. That means you, as a consumer, can still easily consume arsenic laden foods, potentially leading to a variety of health problems down the road, such as cancer.
One of the reasons is political, because setting up maximum threshold for arsenic can jeopardize rice productions resulting in a global crisis, since rice is such a staple in many countries. (4) That means it's unclear how and to what extent future regulations will protect us consumers.
The information here, however, can provide you with the much needed knowledge to take matters into your own hands and reduce or minimize long-term risks. You deserve to know as much information as possible so you can make informed decisions for your and your family's health.
Here is a list of things you should pay attention to in order to minimize arsenic exposure (from rice). Infants are the most vulnerable group among us and they deserve an extra mention further down.
1. Choose Asian rice over European and American rice
From rice that was examined, Thai and Indian rice generally seemed to have the lowest amount of Arsenic.
If you choose American rice, prefer Californian rice over rice produced in southern states.
2. Choose short grain rice over longer grains rice
Generally shorter grain rice seems to be less contaminated than its longer grain cousins.
3. Change the way you cook rice (13)
You can to cut your exposure of arsenic in rice by rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking, followed by using a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 of cup rice during cooking. Finally, drain the excess water when the rice is done.
4. Eat a varied diet (13) Eating a varied diet ensures, not only that you get a variety of nutrients, but also that you lower the risk of eating contaminated products.
Vary your grains, especially if you eat more than two or three servings of rice per week. Though not arsenic-free, wheat and oats tend to have lower levels than rice. And quinoa, millet, and amaranth are among other options for those on a gluten-free diet.
6. Minimize rice products of which arsenic content cannot be reduced (13)
Syrup, crackers, waffles, wafers, chips, crisps, cakes and drinks made from rice are best to be minimized.
An exact amount is unfortunately hard to give. That depends on where the rice originates from and on the rice variety. But even then, you can't be certain of the exact arsenic content.
If you consume these products daily, it would be beneficial to look into similar products made from other grains. Nowadays, a lot of different whole grains and pseudograins (eg: buckwheat and quinoa), nuts and seeds are used for similar products.
7. Consume plenty of antioxidant-rich foods
A growing body of evidence suggests that antioxidant phytonutrients (nutrients from plants may reduce the toxic effects of arsenic by decreasing free radicals. (16)
Antioxidants are found mostly in unrefined, whole foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts and seeds.
8. Add Curcumin or Turmeric to your diet
Curcumin, one of the active compounds of turmeric has shown in one study to undo the DNA damage done by arsenic.
It prevented damage and facilitated repair. Researchers stated it may help protect against arsenic induced cancers. (17)
Since curcumin is only one of the active compounds, so you could also consume the whole food, turmeric, which is not only more affordable, but also contains a plethora of other beneficial compounds.
9. Care for your microbiome
There are signs that certain strains of beneficial bacteria in your gut can protect against arsenic toxicity. When they are reduced in number (eg.: by antibiotics) arsenic can accumulate in the body. (18)
Research is limited, but tending to our inner garden, or our microbiome, is essential since it affects basically all aspects of human health. The microbiome deserves to be discussed in a future article due to its importance and complex nature. (19)
10. Adequate vitamin and mineral status
An adequate amount of vitamins and minerals can improve the excretion of arsenic. (20)
Deficiencies on the other hand could aggravate the effects of arsenic. (21)
Extra Advice for children and infants
The advice above is obviously still in place when it comes to our children.
Children are, however, more susceptible to the toxic effects of arsenic. Higher exposure is reported to be, not only associated with increased sickness and mortality among infants, but is also associated with impaired development. (3)
An example to put things into context: Rice and rice products contribute about 50% of the exposure of American children between 1 and 6 years old who have the highest dietary exposure to arsenic. (12)
The recommendation made, that arsenic intake in infancy and childhood should be as low as possible (3) is well justified.
That's why, for their safety, we need to add some extra notes and recommendations:
1. Reduce or minimize rice products
To reduce arsenic risks consumer reports recommends that babies eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. And their diets should include cereals made from wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic, according to federal information. (13)
Cereal's arsenic content is not reduced if you just use the traditional preparation method, where you either just add hot water or boil it with just enough water to make a porridge (for several minutes).
We can actually use a variation of the 'extra water method' for cereal as well, to reduce the arsenic content somewhat:
Once the cereal is ready, whether by cooking or adding hot water, more water can be added. Bring everything to a boil, stir well and then put the cereal through a fine strainer.
You will lose only a minimal amount of cereal during the straining process this way, because the cereal already thickened up during preparation.
2. Rice drinks should not be used in infants and young children. (12)
Arsenic intake should be especially for this group as low as possible.
Rice milk provides no additional benefits and there are other alternatives
based on other grains, nuts, seeds and soy.
3. Breast milk
Breast milk is always the recommended drink for infants, EVEN when we only take arsenic exposure into account. That's because little arsenic tends to end up in the breast milk and breast milk is significantly lower in arsenic than formula, based on cow's milk.
4. Focus on other grains
Children who consume rice daily and infants whose first solid food is rice, are at particular risk for high arsenic exposure.
5. Watch out for products sweetened with brown rice syrup
Brown rice syrup is often seen as a healthier alternative to sugar.
Not only is it a source of arsenic, it also mostly contains empty calories from sugars. It is not a health food.
6. During pregnancy
Arsenic readily passes through the placenta during pregnancy and studies have shown, that arsenic exposure during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight, spontaneous abortions and infant mortality, besides an increased cancer risk later in life. (12)
That means soon-to-become-mothers in particular should pay close attention to the points mentioned so far and limit their arsenic exposure as much as possible.