April 10, 2013 - 5:53am

by Rosemary Fifield
Education and Member Services Director

A recent flurry of publicity about arsenic in rice has caused understandable concern among consumers. Arsenic is known to be both toxic and potentially carcinogenic in its inorganic form.

Americans eat an average of about two cups of rice per week. Rice is often the first solid food we feed infants and is a staple in some ethnic cuisines. It’s an ingredient in cereals, crackers, beverages, and other processed foods and is the basis of many gluten-free products.

Brown rice syrup has become the preferred sweetener in organic food products and infant formula as an alternative to highly processed high fructose corn syrup. It’s also used in some energy bars and other high-energy foods consumed by endurance athletes.

No Limit for Arsenic in Food

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in public drinking water, no current U.S. regulation sets a limit for the level of arsenic in food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than twenty years and feels the data is lacking to make a recommendation at this time. It is analyzing data from the testing of over one thousand samples of rice and rice products collected in 2012 and will determine whether it will recommend changes in consumption of these products.

Why is Arsenic in Rice?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element distributed in the Earth’s crust. It is found throughout the environment—in water, air, bedrock, and soil. Human activities such as mining and burning coal, oil, gasoline, and wood add arsenic to the environment. Arsenic-based pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been used in non-organic food production and were applied to cotton fields to prevent boll weevil damage. Arsenic compounds are also used as rodenticides and wood preservatives.

Arsenic is present in many foods, but rice has been found to have higher levels, depending upon where it grows. Rice plants are unusually efficient at taking up arsenic, which chemically resembles silica, an element rice requires, and they deposit it in the grain. As a result, rice grown in southeastern states on arsenic-contaminated soil formerly used for cotton production tends to have higher arsenic levels than that grown in California.

What Can Shoppers Do?

Infants and young children consuming rice products and products that contain brown rice syrup are at greater risk than adults because of their small size and the possibility that their diet is less varied. Do not give rice drinks to children younger than four years old, and choose infant formula made without rice starch or brown rice syrup. At the Co-op, these are Earth’s Best Organic, Gerber, and Enfamil.

Choose sweet potatoes, squash, bananas, and avocados as the first solid food for babies. Restrict the feeding of rice cereal for infants to one serving per day, as defined by the package label. Better yet, switch to non-rice baby cereals or make your own by blending oats in a food processor and then cooking them with water.

Be aware that grape, apple, and pear juice tend to have higher levels of arsenic than other juices due to soil contamination from the use of arsenic-based pesticides in fruit orchards and vineyards in the early 1900s. Limit juice to one-half to one cup per day.

Diversify your own diet with a range of starches and grains, including quinoa, barley, couscous, polenta, grits, or bulgur wheat. White rice has lower levels than brown rice because arsenic concentrates in the outer bran layer which is polished off to make white rice. When preparing rice at home, cook it in large amounts of water the way you cook pasta, and pour off the excess water. This can remove up to 30 percent of the inorganic arsenic.

Researchers have found that basmati rice imported from India and Pakistan, jasmine rice from Thailand, and rice from California contain the least arsenic, although Dartmouth Toxic Metals researchers report high levels in California rice, as well. In a recent study, Consumers Union reported Lundberg California White Basmati had the lowest level of arsenic among domestic brands.

Finally, if you drink well water, have it tested. Bedrock can contaminate well water with naturally occurring arsenic.