Heavy metals and food should not be in the same sentence. However, it is the reality that we as consumers are facing today. In recent news, arsenic has been getting much attention due to its presence in rice. Here’s what you need to know.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a natural occurring heavy metal (mineral, actually) that at high levels of exposure can be toxic and lethal. Due to contamination from industrial pollutants, mining, coal burning, agricultural chemicals, arsenic-based pesticides, animal drugs, and arsenic-laden manure, levels of arsenic in our environment, food, and water have increased significantly over the years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have set limits of arsenic in our drinking water at 10 parts per billion (which can easily be reached with rice intake as well). Health concerns such as cancers, reproductive and developmental problems, endocrine, respiratory, immunological, neurological conditions, and infections both acute and chronic have all be associated with extreme elevated levels of arsenic.
Arsenic in Rice
This is a big concern because rice and rice-based products are a major food staple worldwide and the rice plant naturally takes up and stores arsenic to a great extent. Overall, arsenic content will vary depending on contamination levels of soil and irrigation water, region where it’s grown, method of cultivation, and the rice variety. Arsenic tends to be highest in brown whole grain rice, because it concentrates in the bran. Thus polished white rice (i.e. basmati, jasmine) and pre-cooked instant white rice will contain the least amount of arsenic. Because there is little control of where our store-bought rice is coming from or how its cultivated, it has been recommended to rinse the rice initially, soaking, and cooking in a large amount of water (6-12 times more water than rice), and then discarding the water. While vitamins and minerals may be lowered with this process, it may lower arsenic content as well.
There are many questions that still remain unanswered regarding arsenic in our food. It is best to continue monitoring legislative efforts to reduce or eliminate arsenic in our food and water supply. Even so, it is always important to understand a potential health risk factor and be aware of what can be done to minimize exposure. The following recommendations have been set in place:
- Choose white rice more often than brown rice
- Alternative whole grains to consider include: sprouted whole wheat and barley. If gluten free, organic potatoes, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, oats, and non-GMO corn are options to consider.
- Rinse, soak, and cook rice in 6-12 times more water than rice and discard excess water.
- Limit total intake of rice (reduce if other rice-based products are consumed)
- Adults should limit to 1 ½ cups cooked rice per week
- Children should limit just under 1 cup per week
- Minimize or eliminate brown rice, brown syrup, rice bran soluble, and rice milk, especially for pregnant women, infants, and children.
- Gluten free individuals should be cautious about over consuming rice-based products. Choosing other whole grain gluten free alternatives would be best.
- Test your water.
- The EPA has set up the Safe Drinking Water Hotline for water testing and arsenic information: 1-800-426-4791 or visit https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/safe-drinking-water-hotline
- Find a state-certified testing lab through the EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/dwlabcert;Not all resources can do residential testing, so it is recommended to find out more about testing water through your local health department.
- Testing body levels of arsenic may be done through urine testing with a practitioner.
Here at PreviMedica we highly encourage taking steps to minimize exposure to arsenic. While changes may not happen overnight the aforementioned list prioritizes those changes that can be made one step at a time.
- “WHO media centre.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, who.int/mediacentre/en/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
- “Documents for SBAR Panel: National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Arsenic and Clarifications to Compliance and New Source Contaminant Monitoring.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Sept. 2016, epa.gov/reg-flex/documents-sbar-panel-national-primary-drinking-water-regulations-arsenic-and-clarifications . Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
- Stanton, Bruce A., et al. “MDI Biological Laboratory Arsenic Summit: Approaches to Limiting Human Exposure to Arsenic.” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, 26 June 2015, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40572-015-0057-9. Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
- Group, EWG – Environmental Working. “EWG’s Food Scores just took the work out of grocery shopping for me!” EWG, ewg.org/foodscores/content/arsenic-contamination-in-rice#.Wa7q0bKGOUk . Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.
Basilia Theofilou is a contributor on our blog as well as one of the nutrition advisors here at PreviMedica. You can read more about her here.