November 2014 Consumer Reports’ new data and guidelines are important for everyone but especially for gluten avoids
The trouble with arsenic
Arsenic has two chemical forms, inorganic and organic (the latter of which can be less toxic), and is naturally part of the minerals in the earth’s crust. (Note, here organic is a chemistry term and should not be confused with food sold as “organic.”) Arsenic also has been released into the environment through the use of pesticides and poultry fertilizer. (Chickens can be fed arsenic.) Therefore, it’s in soil and water. Rice tends to absorb arsenic more readily than many other plants.
Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system.
The USA Rice Federation says, “Studies show that including white or brown rice in the diet provides measureable health benefits that outweigh the potential risks associated with exposure to trace levels of arsenic.” Consumer Reports food safety experts believe those levels do carry a risk.There is no federal limit for arsenic in rice and rice products. (The FDA has proposed a “action level” for arsenic in juice.) Since 2012, Consumer Reports has been calling on the FDA to set one. The agency told us: “The FDA’s ongoing assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority for the agency. Last year, the FDA released what we believe to be the largest set of test results to date on the presence of arsenic in rice and rice products, and we are planning to release a draft assessment of the potential health risks associated with the consumption of arsenic in these same foods.”
Answering consumers’ questions
After our 2012 report, we got many questions. Two of the most common: “Are there any types of rice that are lower in arsenic?” and “Do other grains, such as quinoa, contain arsenic, too?” We now have the answers.
In addition to analyzing the FDA data on rice products, scientists at our Food Safety and Sustainability Center tested 128 samples of basmati, jasmine, and sushi rice for arsenic. We combined the data with the results of our 2012 tests and FDA data on arsenic in rice for a total of 697 samples of rice. We also looked at the inorganic arsenic levels in 114 samples of nonrice grains. (You can read the details of our testing in our full report.)
Our latest tests determined that the inorganic arsenic content of rice varies greatly depending on the type of rice and where it was grown. White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. on average has half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice.
Our findings led us to treat those specific rices from those areas differently from other types of rice and rices grown in other regions. Based on our data, we calculated that consumers could have about twice as many weekly servings as we previously recommended if that was the only rice or rice product someone ate. For adults, that adds up to 4½ servings per week; children could have 2¾ servings.
All types of rice (except sushi and quick cooking) with a label indicating that it’s from Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas or just from the U.S. had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in our tests. For instance, white rices from California have 38 percent less inorganic arsenic than white rices from other parts of the country.
Brown rice has 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type. Arsenic accumulates in the grain’s outer layers, which are removed to make white rice. Brown has more nutrients, though, so you shouldn’t switch entirely to white. Brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan is the best choice; it has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices.
Rice that’s grown organically takes up arsenic the same way conventional rice does, so don’t rely on organic to have less arsenic.
Grains lower in arsenic
The gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta or grits had negligible levels of inorganic arsenic. Bulgur, barley, and farro, which contain gluten, also have very little arsenic. Quinoa (also gluten-free), had average inorganic arsenic levels comparable to those of other alternative grains. But some samples had quite a bit more. Though they were still much lower than any of the rices, those spikes illustrate the importance of varying the types of grains you eat.
Cooking to lower arsenic levels
You may be able to cut your exposure to inorganic arsenic in any type of rice by rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking, using a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice, and draining the excess water afterward. That is a traditional method of cooking rice in Asia. The modern technique of cooking rice in water that is entirely absorbed by the grains has been promoted because it allows rice to retain more of its vitamins and other nutrients. But even though you may sacrifice some of rice’s nutritional value, research has shown that rinsing and using more water removes about 30 percent of the rice’s inorganic arsenic content.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.