Breaking News: FDA Confirms Concerning Arsenic Levels in Rice

From our show, you’ve heard about high arsenic levels in apple juice. Now, a new report sheds light on arsenic levels in another food: rice.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a new analysis confirming concerning high levels of inorganic and organic arsenic in rice products – white rice, brown rice, and rice products – confirming a similar Consumer Reports analysis. Though many experts have been urging the FDA to set limits for arsenic in food and food agencies in other countries have already set safety standards for rice, the FDA is still “not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time.”

In their analysis, the FDA tested nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products, which included ready-to-eat cereals, infant cereals, rice cakes, rice pasta, rice flour, rice drinks and rice crackers. They tested for inorganic arsenic – a Group class 1 carcinogen – and two forms of organic arsenic, DMA and MMA, which the Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Their study found levels in rice products that confirmed the concerning levels in other studies. They released their full, detailed analysis on their website and mentioned that data from “more than 1,000 additional rice and rice product samples” will be posted as it becomes available.

This research mirrors Consumer Report’s analysis on 223 various rice products. Read the complete details of their results here. Consumer Reports also analyzed arsenic levels in those who consumed rice. They found that those who “eat rice have higher arsenic levels.” After assessing 3,633 study participants, they found that on average, “people who reported eating one rice food item had total urinary arsenic levels 44% greater than those who did not, and people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels 70% higher than those who had no rice.”

Arsenic is a colorless, odorless and tasteless compound, which is naturally abundant in our environment in such places as rock formations, minerals and soil, and is also a byproduct of human agricultural and industrial pursuits. It’s important to understand we are all exposed to small amounts of arsenic on a regular basis from the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Ideally, we would have no arsenic exposure at all but that simply isn’t practical with a naturally occurring element. 

Because the rice plant is grown in water-flooded conditions, it is much more effectively exposed to arsenic from soil or water. Though this new analysis is disconcerting, a 2009-10 study from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that “rice contributes 17% of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, which would put it in third place, behind fruits and fruit juices at 18% and vegetables at 24%.”

Inorganic arsenic, commonly used in the past in pesticides and still used to treat timber, is considered more toxic than organic forms. The US government put a stop to the use of inorganic arsenical pesticides in the 1980s. However, inorganic arsenic residues still remains in the soil. Plus, Consumer Reports further suggests “other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted,” and inorganic arsenic may lace “fertilizer made from poultry waste.” 

Furthermore, health experts are concerned about arsenic exposure in childhood – even in utero. For example, a developing fetus may be exposed to arsenic in the pregnant mother’s environment (arsenic crosses the placenta). Research suggests that chronic childhood arsenic exposure may be associated with cognitive impairment (lower IQ scores) and an increased risk of illness early in life. 

It is recommended that you avoid offering rice and rice products as a staple to kids under age five. Other countries have made similar recommendations, including the UK Food Standards Agency which advises that infants and young children should not consume rice milk as a substitute for cow’s milk, breast milk, or infant formula. Although we have more to learn about arsenic’s effect on our health when in the food supply, why take a risk on the health of your child, especially since side effects may not be apparent for years.

Food companies have not been required by the FDA to have arsenic abatement as part of food processing. What is needed is a call to action to stimulate innovation and reward companies that invest in healthier products.

Currently the FDA still decides against stricter regulations. The FDA states that they will wait until their full analysis is complete before determining “whether or not to issue additional recommendations." FDA Commissioner Margaret A Hamburg, M.D. provided further comment on the issue: “We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know.”

If you regularly consume rice and rice products, consider these suggestions and alternatives:

  • To mimic the texture of rice, use whole oats and cook with less water and without stirring.
  • Try whole grains like quinoa, barley, and millet.
  • Drink hemp and almond milk rather than rice drinks.
  • Reduce arsenic in the rice you eat as an adult. Soaking the rice beforehand until it becomes clear and cooking it “pasta style” in which there is extra water in the rice pot (6 cups of water for every cup of rice) can remove 30% of arsenic.
  • Parents of children under five years should avoid feeding them rice milk or cereals.