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Arsenic Is In Rice - Should you worry?

In EWG’s view, the answer is yes.  Federal government scientists and regulators and food industry officials are scrambling to respond to emerging evidence that arsenic, a known human carcinogen, contaminates many otherwise healthy foods that contain rice. EWG scientists have concluded that consumers should shop vigilantly, choosing foods selectively to lower their chances of consuming excessive arsenic. That’s why EWG’s Food Scores flags arsenic as a “concern” in rice-based products.

According to our detailed assessment and research, there is no simple way to determine how much rice-based food you can safely eat. All the arsenic in your diet adds to your lifetime risk of developing cancer. However this factor must be weighed against the nutritional qualities of foods you might eat in the place of rice. Rice is an affordable grain that figures in the daily fare of millions of Americans, particularly Asian and Latino families, vegetarians and people on a gluten-free diet. Rice flour, bran and syrup are added to many processed foods like crackers, pasta and granola bars. Infants and children are commonly fed rice-based cereals.

Why vary your diet?

The bottom line:  EWG recommends that you limit consumption of rice and rice-based food when possible and instead eat a varied diet of healthy lower-arsenic grains and sweeteners. 

The scientific findings about arsenic in rice pose a dilemma for consumers, food companies and regulators. Many people cannot easily stop eating rice without unintended and unwanted consequences. In these situations, health concerns about arsenic must be weighed against the alternatives.  A person who swaps homemade beans and rice or stir-fried tofu, vegetables and rice for a fast food burger could wind up with a meal with fewer nutrients, and more fat, salt and added sugar.

EWG’s Food Scores database attaches “moderate” ingredient concern to arsenic in rice and rice-based processed foods that contain more arsenic in a single serving than is legal in a glass of water. These include breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers and rice-based beverages. We assign a lower “ingredient concern” score in categories where rice-based ingredients are not the primary components of the particular product. In such products, we expect arsenic concentrations to be lower. 

How heavy metals get into food

Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead are naturally present in water and soil.  In some places, intense concentrations exist as a result of industrial pollution and decades of agricultural use of lead- and arsenic-based pesticides. Cadmium is a contaminant in phosphorous-based fertilizers (WHO 2010). 

Cadmium concentrations are lower in organically-grown fruits, vegetables and grains (Baranski 2014).

For decades, the Food and Drug Administration has been monitoring levels of heavy metals in the food supply.  It has sometimes detected high levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in fruits, vegetables and grains. Arsenic levels are consistently elevated in rice and foods made with rice flour, bran and rice-based sweeteners.  Carrots, mushrooms, peanuts, seaweed, fruit juices and wine occasionally have high arsenic concentrations (FDA 2011).

The FDA has taken action to reduce concentrations of lead in food (FDA 2011). (Read more about other heavy metals in foods here.) However, the agency has done less to address arsenic risks.

Many authorities single out rice as a special problem because of its propensity to harbor arsenic. While all plants can absorb some arsenic, rice plants, due to their physiology and growing conditions, accumulate 10 times more arsenic than other grain crops (Sohn 2014). Agricultural scientists have bred some varieties of rice to thrive in soils that are high in arsenic.  These varieties are among the few crops that can grow in highly contaminated fields.  

Americans get more arsenic from food than polluted water

Scientists have long known that people who drink arsenic-contaminated water have higher rates of lung, skin and bladder cancers. For that reason, federal and state governments have invested millions of dollars in reducing arsenic concentrations in drinking water.  

Yet in recent years, researchers have developed evidence that most Americans are more exposed to arsenic in their diets than by contaminated water.

In 2010 scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a mathematical modeling exercise based on arsenic levels in food and water and calculated that a typical American ingested twice as much inorganic arsenic from food as from water (Xue 2010). They estimated that infants and children had more intense exposures to arsenic than adults, due to children’s small size and relative hunger.

Ground-breaking scientific discoveries pinpoint arsenic in rice

In 2011 Diane Gilbert-Diamond and her colleagues at Dartmouth medical school discovered that pregnant women who ate as little as a half cup of rice had just as much arsenic in their urine as those who had imbibed an entire liter of water contaminated with 10 parts per billion of arsenic, the maximum concentration allowed under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act (Gilbert-Diamond 2011). In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, the Dartmouth scientists expressed surprise at this result:  they had set out to examine arsenic exposures for 229 pregnant women in New Hampshire, where drinking water often contains high concentrations of the toxic chemical.

Their findings suggested that arsenic was a problem not only for people with significant contamination in their drinking water but also for millions more Americans who routinely consumed rice-based foods. This realization spurred the Dartmouth researchers to broaden their focus and examine rice and other dietary sources of arsenic.

In 2012, the independent, highly regarded Consumer Reports research organization made public tests indicating that arsenic concentrations commonly exceeded 100 parts per billion in rice, rice flour, crackers, pasta, hot and cold breakfast cereals and infant cereal (Consumer Reports 2012).  Arsenic levels in rice milk often surpassed 10 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in drinking water. Consumer Reports also measured cadmium and lead levels in the rice samples but concluded that these contaminants posed less threat to human health than arsenic.  Rice generally contains less lead than arsenic. Cadmium levels in rice are similar to or lower than arsenic levels in rice, but the consensus among scientists is that cadmium is a less potent toxicant.

FDA, international bodies study arsenic in rice

Last year, the FDA published tests of more than 1,300 samples of rice-based foods.  Its findings were in line with those of Consumer Reports (FDA 2013a). On its website, the FDA downplayed the possible health consequences of its findings, saying the arsenic levels it measured were “too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects” (FDA 2013b).

The agency’s statement postponed a final judgment on the obvious question: do rice-based foods raise people’s risks of cancer?  The FDA pledged to publish its assessment of the cancer risks posed by arsenic contamination of rice-based foods by the end of this year.  After that assessment circulated, the agency said it would consider “voluntary or mandatory limits or other steps that may be needed to reduce consumer exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products” (FDA 2013c). In the meantime, it cautioned consumers not to eat excessive quantities of rice, instead choosing a balanced and varied diet to “minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food”  (FDA 2013c).

Last July, CODEX, a joint commission of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, adopted a new standard for acceptable arsenic levels in rice:  it recommended that governments allow no more than 200 parts of arsenic per billion in white or “polished” rice and no more than 400 parts per billion in brown rice (FAO/WHO 2014). The European Food Safety Authority has discussed a more restrictive limit of 100 parts per billion of arsenic in foods marketed for infants and children, becaue children are thought to be more sensitive to arsenic than adults, but it has not come to a final determination.

The CODEX recommendations were not meant to imply that 200 or 400 parts per billion of arsenic in rice were safe.  Rather, the international body aimed to encourage regulators of individual governments to ban rice with higher concentrations of arsenic from the market.

Andrew Meharg, a professor of plant and soil sciences at Queen's University Belfast and recognized international expert on the problem of arsenic in the food supply, urged regulators to lower the bar to 50 parts of arsenic per billion for foods made for infants and children and 100 parts per billion in rice sold to the general public.  He contended that arsenic concentrations greater than 100 parts per billion in food posed an unacceptably high risk of cancer.

Will regulators crack down on rice-based foods?

The U.S. and other countries have been slow to take action to reduce arsenic concentrations in foods. The FDA recently set a non-binding “action level” of 10 parts per billion for arsenic in apple juice, the same as drinking water. But the FDA has not set legally enforceable maximum levels of arsenic for many other rice-based foods that have higher concentrations of arsenic.

There are a few things government agencies should do:  

  • Set maximum allowable levels for arsenic in processed foods like baby food, crackers, pastas and breakfast cereals where manufacturers can use other ingredients as substitutes for rice flour, bran or syrup. Press the food industry to adopt alternatives to rice flour, bran and syrup in processed foods.
  • Set maximum levels for arsenic and other heavy metals in other foods.  Identify the origin of foods with high concentrations of heavy metals, and shift these contaminated farmlands into the production of non-food crops.
  • Fund research into techniques and technologies that reduce arsenic uptake by plants like rice. Growing rice in dry instead of water-saturated soils could decrease the amount of arsenic that migrates into the grains. New varieties of rice could be bred to take up less arsenic from soil and water.
  • Provide consumers with information about health risks associated with arsenic in foods like rice and the nutritional tradeoffs to consider when deciding how frequently to eat arsenic-contaminated foods.

Until governments act, EWG encourages you to reduce your, and your family’s exposure to arsenic.  Here’s what you can do: 

-- Limit your rice consumption.

Organically-grown and conventional rice both contain arsenic. But arsenic concentrations in rice appear to vary based on the variety and the region where it is grown. White rice -- particularly basmati, jasmine and pre-cooked “instant” rice -- tends to have lower concentrations of arsenic than brown rice because arsenic accumulates in rice bran. Rice varieties grown in California or imported from Southeast Asia are often lower in arsenic than rice grown in other parts of the U.S.

Consumer Reports suggested that adults eat no more than one to three servings of rice or rice-based foods per week, depending on the food type. It recommended that children eat a maximum of 1.25 servings of rice, rice pasta, rice breakfast cereal or rice pasta per week or one small serving of rice-based infant cereal per day. Consumer Reports urged parents not to give children younger than five rice-based beverages regularly.

-- Rinse rice and cook rice in extra water.

Rinsing rice before cooking may reduce arsenic content to some extent. Some research indicates that the amount of arsenic in rice can be cut by as much as 40 percent if the rice is boiled in a large volume of water like pasta and excess water discarded.  Here's a recipe. Cooking rice like pasta is a good option for brown rice, whose superior nutritional benefits must be balanced against higher arsenic content.

-- Do not give infants rice cereal as their first solid food.

Parents were once advised to start infants on fortified rice cereals, touted as non-allergenic and nutritive, but nutritional guidance is shifting. With some exceptions, parents are no longer encouraged to delay introducing other, potentially allergenic foods. Soft fruits, vegetables or even meats are great first sources of complementary nutrients for a breast- or formula-fed baby. Try bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes and squash.

-- Choose other grains.

Powdered cereals are convenient and often used to thicken baby purees, but Consumer Reports found significant quantities of arsenic in all three brands of infant rice cereals tested. Look for non-rice whole grain or oat cereals, or make your own by pureeing grains in a food processor before or after cooking them. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics convened an Expert Work Group on Arsenic in Rice with a mandate to examine the safety of rice-based foods for infants and children. The Work Group recently concluded that oats are a preferred grain for infants and children who require thickened foods due to special medical needs like reflux (AAP 2014).

--  Buy processed foods that don’t contain rice.

Look for alternatives to rice-based processed foods such as breakfast cereals, rice flour, rice pasta, cakes and crackers.  Consumer demand for gluten-free alternatives to wheat-based processed foods has spurred a proliferation of rice-based products, but they're not the only option. Low-arsenic grains include barley, faro, couscous and bulgur wheat. To avoid gluten, consider amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, oats, cornmeal, grits and polenta. Read labels carefully and investigate products with these alternative grains.  Some flour mixes for baking contain no rice or gluten.

-- Limit consumption of products whose labels list rice syrup as a sweetener.

Energy and cereal bars and other processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup can contain elevated arsenic levels (FDA 2013; Jackson 2012).  Such products are often aimed at the "natural" foods market.  But “natural” does not mean “safe.” Read labels and use EWG’s Food Scores database and app to avoid rice syrup sweetener in foods you eat frequently.

-- Do not use rice milk as a dairy substitute for cow's milk. 

Great Britain's Food Safety Authority cautions parents to avoid rice milk as a dairy alternative for toddlers from age one to four and a half. Consumer Reports tested samples of two common brands of rice milk and found arsenic levels ranging from 17 to 70 parts per billion -- all exceeding the federal drinking water maximum of 10 parts per billion.

-- Do not give children non-dairy drinks that list rice syrup as a sweetener.

At least two brands of hemp milk contain brown rice syrup. In many cases, dairy-sensitive children can be given water and other dietary sources of calcium instead of a highly processed dairy substitute.

-- Check your drinking water.

Arsenic taints drinking water in many parts of the U.S. Read the Consumer Confidence Report that your water utility is required to send you once a year, and check EWG's Tap Water Database to see if arsenic has been detected in your water. Use EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide to find filters certified to remove arsenic from your water. If you drink well water, contact your local health department to find out if arsenic could be a problem, or get your well tested. Testing is not expensive, and it's worth the investment. 

Conclusion:

Rice is a specifically risky crop. Eating less rice and foods with rice-based ingredients will decrease the amount of arsenic in your body.

Lead and cadmium risks are distributed more broadly across the food supply. To lower Americans’ exposures to these contaminants, governments must take a number of actions, including crop monitoring programs to single out foods that are particularly contaminated, and soil testing to find highly polluted fields and orchards where these crops were grown. 

The FDA should investigate agricultural practices that add heavy metals to cropland, including the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.  The FDA and other government health agencies should clearly communicate risks to consumers so they can make informed choices about how often they eat specific foods likely to be contaminated.

 

References:

AAP. 2014. AAP group offers advice to reduce infants’ exposure to arsenic in rice. American Academy of Pediatrics Arsenic in Rice Expert Work Group. AAP News. 35(11):13. http://aapnews.aappublications.org/content/35/11/13.1.full.pdf+html

Baransky M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition 112:794-841. http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FBJN%2FBJN112_05%2FS0007114514001366a.pdf

Consumer Reports. 2012. Arsenic in your food: Our findings show a real need for federal standards for this toxin. Consumer Reports Magazine. November, 2012. http://consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm

Consumer Reports. 2013. Arsenic in rice test data prompt FDA to recommend diversifying grains in diet. September 6, 2013. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/09/arsenic-in-rice-test-data-prompt-fda-to-recommend-diversifying-grains-in-diet/index.htm

EFSA. 2009. Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food. European Food Safety Authority Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM). EFSA Journal 7(1): 1351. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/1351.htm Last updated: 9/27/2010.

EPA. 2012. Arsenic Compounds (107-02-8). Hazard Summary – Created in April 1992; Revised in December 2102. http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/arsenic.html Last updated: 10/18/2013.

FAO/WHO. 2014. Report of the Eighth Session of the CODEX Committee on Contaminants in Food. Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, Codex Alimentarius Commission. 37th Session Geneva, Switzerland, 14-18 July 2014. http://www.codexalimentarius.org/download/report/906/REP14_CFe.pdf

FDA. 2011. Total Diet Study. Data Summaries 1991-2011. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/TotalDietStudy/default.htm

FDA. 2013a. Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. Food and Drug Administration http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319870.htm Last updated 9/12/2013

FDA. 2013b. FDA Statement on Testing and Analysis of Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. Food and Drug Administration. September 6, 2013. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm367263.htm

FDA. 2013c. Questions & Answers: Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. Food and Drug Administration http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319948.htm Last updated 8/4/2014

Gilbert-Diamond D, Cottingham KL, Gruber JF, et al. 2011. Rice consumption contributes to arsenic exposure in US women. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108(51):20656-60.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3251121/

Jackson BP, Taylor VF, Karagas MR, et al. 2012. Arsenic, organic foods, and brown rice syrup. Environmental Health Perspectives 120(5): 623-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3251121/

NAS. 2001. Arsenic in Drinking Water, 2001 Update. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309063337

Sohn E. 2014. Contamination: The toxic side of rice. Nature 514:S62

WHO. 2010. Exposure to Cadmium: A Major Public Health Concern. World Health Organization. Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.who.int/ipcs/features/cadmium.pdf

Xue J, Zartarian V, Wang S-W, Liu SV, Georgopoulos P. 2010. Probabilistic Modeling of Dietary Arsenic Exposure and Dose and Evaluation with 2003–2004 NHANES Data. Environ Health Perspectives (118)3: 345-51

 

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