Health MATTERS: did you know that RICE has arsenic?

Neither did I. According to an article in the Globe and Mail, the level of arsenic in rice depends on the geographic region in which it is grown.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

There are low levels of arsenic in most of the rice we eat.  Not surprisingly to chemists and food safety experts, trace amounts of arsenic actually are present in many foods, and rice is especially prone to accumulating it.  For consumers, this may come as a shock.  Arsenic is a naturally occurring element present in rock, soil, water and air that was once used in pesticides and, until 2009, by poultry farmers in medication targeting parasites in their birds.  Today, arsenic shows up as largely a byproduct of heavy metal industry.

It exists in two chemical forms: a less toxic organic form that we can ingest with virtually no risk and a slightly more toxic inorganic form that reacts to our bodies and can do damage.

In 2012, Consumer Reports conducted a study that found measurable levels of arsenic in almost all of the 60 rice variables and rice products they tested.  Further study showed that the inorganic arsenic levels found in rice varied across geographic locations and types of rice.  The breakdown:

White basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the United States had half of the inorganic arsenic amount of most other types of rice;

Rice from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic;

White rice from California had 39 percent less inorganic arsenic than white rice from other parts of the United States;

Brown rice had 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type (that is because it accumulates in the grain’s outer layers, which are removed to make white rice):

And rice that’s grown organically took up arsenic the same way as convention rice.

But how dangerous is arsenic and should we be limiting the amount of rice we eat?

“Essentially…you would need to eat three kilograms of rice a day to get noticeable toxic effects,” says Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph.  He says Codex, an international group of food safety experts funded by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has recommended a maximum level for arsenic in rice of .02 milligrams per kilogram – which means most of us don’t come close to eating toxic levels.

 Whew!  I was worried because I love Japanese sushi (white over brown) rice, Chinese fried rice, Indian Basmati, Mexican and Thai Jasmine.  That could be a problem.

While Codex recommends adults limit their rice servings to four a week, and zero for children under five, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency say the trace amounts of arsenic found in food are not considered a safety concern for Canadians.

Warriner says that while the risk of arsenic exposure from eating rice is minimal, if you are really concerned you can opt for white rice over brown, soak it overnight prior to cooking (to eliminate inorganic arsenic by 30 to 60 percent), and choose rice from geographic regions known to have lower levels of arsenic in the soil.

Source: Kat Sieniuc for The Globe and Mail – Health Section



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