Monday, October 15, 2012

Brown Rice And Arsenic: What Is Going On?

Chances are, you have recently read in the papers the disturbing report of high levels of arsenic in rice products. Many of my clients have been asking me if they should alter their consumption of brown rice, which is a staple for many looking to include a lower glycemic, whole grain in their diet.

figured I’d do a little research on the matter and update everyone with a Blog post on the subject, so here goes!

Where Did This Report Come From
The media attention on rice and arsenic stemmed from a Consumer Reports article that came out just a few weeks ago.

You can read the report here:

Scientists tested over 200 samples of rice products for levels of arsenic.  Products tested included white rice, brown rice, hot and cold rice cereals, rice crackers, and rice pasta.  Many of the products tested positive for what Consumer Reports call “worrisome” levels of arsenic.

What is Arsenic And Why Is It Bad For You?
Arsenic is an element that can be found naturally in rocks and soil, water, and even the air we breathe.  It has also been introduced into the environment from agricultural and industrial sources.  Many years ago, arsenic was used as a pesticide in areas that grew cotton.  While it is no longer used in this way, much of the arsenic used for this purpose can still be found in the soil.

Arsenic comes in two forms.  Inorganic and organic.  Organic Arsenic is thought to be much less toxic to humans.  Inorganic arsenic is the form used in industry and has been linked to cancer in humans.

Both the National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency classify inorganic arsenic as a “known human carcinogen”.  Studies have shown that high levels of arsenic exposure are associated with an increased risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer.  It may cause other types of cancer as well. 

It is clear that high levels of arsenic are not good for us.  The question is how high is too high?

My Take On The Consumer Report Findings
Should we be concerned about the report of arsenic in our rice? Yes.  Should we freak out about it?  Absolutely not.  Here is why:

1) The EPA has known about the presence of arsenic in our foods for years and is not overly concerned with negative health outcomes at current levels of exposure. They do not recommend changing consumption patterns of brown rice, but suggest including a variety of other whole grains as part of a balanced diet.  They are currently investigating the matter in more detail.

2) According to the EPA, rice is actually the 3rd biggest source of arsenic in our foods, accounting for 17% of dietary exposure.  The biggest source is vegetables at 24% and the second biggest is fruit at 18%.

3) The levels reported were not earth shattering.  For example, many of the brown rice samples tested reported an arsenic exposure of 6-7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving.  The federal government standard for safe drinking water is 10 micrograms per liter.  In other words, if the same amount of arsenic found in a serving of brown rice was found in a liter of drinking water, it would be deemed safe for consumption.  Keep in mind you would be drinking several liters of this safe water per day.

4) The reality of our world is that most of our food is contaminated with something.  The question becomes is it contaminated enough to make us sick?  You need to consider the pros and cons of consuming the food.  For example, our fish supply contains small amounts of mercury.  However, the benefits of eating fish outweigh the increased risk of the mercury so that people who eat fish are actually healthier than people who do not.  The same goes for fruits and vegetables.  Most contain a small pesticide residue, but the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the risk so that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables are healthier than those who don’t.  This is actually explained very nicely in an article in U.S. News And World Report by Dr. David Katz, a respected nutrition researcher from Yale. You can find this article here.

What Do I Recommend?
If you are eating 5 servings of brown rice per day, you may want to cut back a bit.  If you are having it a few times per week, there is no reason to change this behavior.  Brown rice is a very good source of whole grain that has a research proven beneficial impact on our health.  

I would be cautious about eating a lot of rice products if you are pregnant and I wouldn’t feed a lot of it to young children.  This is because even smaller levels of arsenic appear to be more harmful to fetuses and young children.

Rice grown in the southern U.S. is higher in arsenic that that grown in California (cotton was grown in the South and not in California).  If you can find a brown rice that is grown in California, go with that one.

Another recommendation would be to change the way you cook your brown rice.  According to Consumer Reports, if you use 6 cups of water for each cup of brown rice, and drain off the excess water after the rice is cooked, you can reduce arsenic levels up to 30%.  It is a good idea to start doing this.