Have you heard the recent stir about arsenic in rice? Both Consumer Reports and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released reports in September stating that hundreds of brands of rice and rice-based products contain high levels of this mineral, which has been linked to heart disease and lung, bladder, and skin cancers. Arsenic lurks in soil and water and makes its way into many types of foods. But because rice is grown in marshes and low-lying, wet fields, it absorbs more arsenic than do other grains, fruits, and vegetables, according to the FDA.
So it wasn't a total newsflash that this compound is in rice. But discovering that such a broad range of rice types and products – even certified-organic products – actually contain arsenic, and at such high levels, has set off alarm bells. "Arsenic is a well-studied contaminant, and the FDA has been measuring concentrations in food for more than 20 years," says Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "But the issue has now come to the public's attention because of third-party tests such as 'Consumer Reports,' which confirm that most Americans get much more arsenic from food than from contaminated water." The issue has gotten governments' attention, too, both at home and abroad. These findings prompted the Chinese and South Korean governments to temporarily halt imports of U.S.-grown rice into their nations and lit a fire under the FDA to set acceptable arsenic limits for rice in the States.
Still, not everyone is buying the bad news. The USA Rice Federation swiftly debunked Consumer Reports' conclusion that rice is unsafe, stating that no solid evidence exists to link arsenic to adverse health effects. Even though the pro-rice trade association is likely right in that a bowl of Rice Krispies won't kill you, several public health organizations and medical experts say you should take steps to limit arsenic exposure from rice. Here's how.
Rather than ixnaying rice from your diet – which could be especially challenging if you're gluten intolerant and can't eat wheat – instead limit your intake, and mix in other, less-tainted grains such as quinoa, couscous, or barley, Lunder suggests. Also taper your consumption of rice-based processed foods like cereal, crackers, and pastas, and look for products not made with rice syrup or rice flour. And when you do buy rice to cook at home, first read the label to see where it was grown. "Some regions of the world have higher arsenic levels in water and soil, which could be due to the normal geography or because arsenic-based pesticides were used on the agricultural fields in the early to mid-1900s," Lunder says. "California-grown rice typically has less arsenic than rice grown in the South [Central] U.S."
She also suggests boiling brown rice in a big pot of water, which can lower the amount of arsenic by as much as 40 percent. Since white rice doesn't maintain consistency as well when boiled, Lunder says to rinse it thoroughly before cooking to lessen the arsenic load.