Organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice—new tests by Consumer Reports have found that those and other types of rice products on grocery shelves contain arsenic. Arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen that causes cancer, like bladder, lung, liver, kidney, prostate, and skin cancer. Arsenic can also set up children for other health problems in later life.
Consumer Reports tested over 200 samples of rice products. In virtually every product tested, CR found measurable amounts of total arsenic. There were significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.
The Environmental Protection Agency assumes there is actually no “safe” level of exposure to inorganic arsenic since some vegetables, fruits and water can harbor it. No federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods, but the standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). CR found that a single serving of some rice could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.
CR also discovered that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives such as oatmeal. Given the findings, limiting the consumption of rice products is very important.
The study found:
- White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which account for 76 percent of domestic rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere.
- Within any single brand of rice that was tested, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were always higher for brown rice than for white.
- People who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not, according to our analysis of federal health data. And certain ethnic groups were more highly affected, including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and a broad category that includes Asians.
Tracing the sources of arsenic
“Natural” does not equal safe. Though arsenic can enter soil or water due to weathering of arsenic-containing minerals in the earth, humans are more to blame than Mother Nature for arsenic contamination in the U.S. today, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic, and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960s. Residues from the decades of use of lead-arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.
Rice is not the only source of arsenic in food. A 2009-10 study from the EPA estimated that rice contributes 17 percent of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, which would put it in third place, behind fruits and fruit juices at 18 percent, and vegetables at 24 percent. Cereal products could account for more than half of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly because of rice.
Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains.
CR tested 223 samples of various rice products. The samples covered a variety of rice-containing food categories, including infant cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes, and rice crackers. CR bought products often used by people on gluten-free or other special diets, including rice pasta, rice flour, and rice drinks.
Brown rice had higher arsenic than white.
In brands for which we tested both a white and a brown rice, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were higher in the brown rice than in the white rice of the same brand in all cases.
Though brown rice has nutritional advantages over white rice, it is not surprising that it might have higher levels of arsenic, which concentrates in the outer layers of a grain. The process of polishing rice to produce white rice removes those surface layers, slightly reducing the total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in the grain.
In brown rice, only the hull is removed. Arsenic concentrations found in the bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain.
Cereals cause concern
Worrisome arsenic levels were detected in infant cereals, typically consumed between 4 and 12 months of age. To reduce arsenic risks, CR recommends that babies eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. And their diets should include cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic, according to federal information.
According to federal data, some infants eat up to two to three servings of rice cereal a day. Eating rice cereal at that rate, with the highest level of inorganic arsenic we found in our tests, could result in a risk of cancer twice our acceptable level.
Our study shows people who eat rice have higher arsenic levels.
CR’s resulting analysis of 3,633 study participants found that on average, people who reported eating one rice food item had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not, and people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels 70 percent higher than those who had no rice.
Ways to Reduce Arsenic Levels in Rice
Rinse your rice thoroughly. Thoroughly rinsing rice until the water is clear (four to six changes of water) reduces the total arsenic content by up to approximately 25-30 percent.
Check your municipal water report. Make sure your local water supply does not have high levels of arsenic. If you do have high levels, washing can make it worse. But if you are under 10 parts per billion, it should help.
Cook and drain your rice sort of like pasta. Use about 6 parts water to 1 part rice, and then drain off the water after it’s done. The FDA says that studies show rinsing and cooking in excess water can reduce total arsenic levels by 50 to 60 percent. For enriched rice, rinsing will also likely reduce the amount of added nutrients.
Choose aromatic rice. According to the hundreds of recently released test results, aromatic rice varieties show the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic. Imported basmati and jasmine rice showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as regular rice grown in the Southern U.S.