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Arsenic Levels In Rice: Should You Worry?

Last month brought two reports showing alarming levels of arsenic in rice and rice products, one from the U.S. FDA, and the other from the well-respected independent research lab of Consumer Reports. Is this something to worry about?

Yes… and No.

Arsenic in rice can come from two sources: naturally occurring arsenic from the mineral uptake in the soil and water of the rice paddies; and inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen left over from arsenic-based chemical pesticides applied during the growing season or lingering in the soil from use on crops in the last century. The first is of less concern; the second is a toxic legacy.

Rice is particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination because arsenic is water soluble, and rice paddies are flooded with water. Concentrations of inorganic arsenic are highest in the south-central area of the U.S., where cotton crops were doused with pesticides to combat the boll weevil beetle, and the arsenic still lingers in the soil of cotton-fields-turned-rice-paddies.

In a twist, brown rice contains more inorganic arsenic because it concentrates in the germ of the rice. Who would have thought we would discover white rice to be less harmful for the body than brown rice?

What can you do to try to minimize exposure to the inorganic arsenic in rice?

  • Rinse rice before cooking. Funnily enough, this is what I’ve been recommending for more than a decade when including rice in a Glorious One-Pot Meal recipe. I’m a believer in rinsing rice.
  • Increase the ratio of water to rice to the tune of 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice. This controversial theory says that more arsenic (up to 30%) will leach out of the rice and into the water during cooking. The extra water can then can be drained off – along with the arsenic –  before serving the rice. I think the jury is still out on if this method is effective or not, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
  • Choose organic rice. Even though organic rice was also found to contain arsenic, probably due to previous non-organic farming practices in the same fields, at least you can be sure that no new arsenic-based chemical pesticides were added during the growing process.
  • Choose white rice, specifically, jasmine or basmati rice, preferably grown in Thailand or India. Rice from these locations contained significantly less inorganic arsenic when tested.
  • Avoid brown rice syrup.
  • Vary your diet. Don’t eat all rice products, for example, if you are going gluten-free. Don’t only drink rice milk if you are dairy-free. Shake it up with other grains such as millet, amaranth, and quinoa. Try coconut milk or almond milk for a change.

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