Arsenic is a well-known poison, and we put it on the list of things to avoid along with mercury. Unfortunately, even if you have a water filter or keep your kitchen free of bottles with skull-and-crossbones labels, you’re still being exposed to arsenic—it’s in your rice.
Even in areas of the world where rice isn't the primary grain staple, the bioaccumulation of arsenic from rice is causing a 6% increase in cardiovascular disease in people in the U.K., as a study in the June edition of Science Total Environment shares. People in England and Wales who are in the highest 25% of rice eaters are at an increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease than those people who consume the least rice.
Arsenic in Rice is a Global Issue
Rice is a staple grain for much of the world and forms the basis of many gluten-free products. In the U.S., Asian Americans consume over 115 grams of rice per day, while Americans of non-Hispanic and non-Asian descent consume around 12 grams per day. Arsenic can be found in drinking water (which is set at 10 mcg per liter of tap water), but there is no limit on the amount of arsenic which is allowed in food.
Where does the arsenic in rice come from? It’s found in the soil. As an example, the arsenic in the American fields where rice is grown is left over from contamination of arsenic-based pesticides that were used to control pests during the large cotton farming operations, especially in the southern states. The rice that is now grown in these fields contains about 1.76 times more arsenic than in rice grown on the other side of the country in California.
Even though most people don’t think of America as being the country where the most rice is consumed, a large portion of the rice grown in the U.S. is exported, even to Asia. About 60% of the rice grown in America is eaten by Americans, but it’s also exported to Europe, Asia, and South America.
For those who are eating rice frequently/daily, they could easily ingest more arsenic from the rice alone which exceeds the safety level put forth in drinking water from the tap.
All is Not Lost—There are Low-Arsenic Varieties You Can Enjoy
Rice has health (and taste) benefits that you can and should still enjoy. It’s still debated whether brown or enriched white rice is better for you; some argue about the phytates in brown rice which may bind to all the healthy minerals in brown rice, while others say brown is always better because of the fiber.
One thing is for sure: if you eat white rice, make sure it’s enriched. History shows us that eating a diet consisting of mostly only white rice that isn’t enriched with B-vitamins can lead to vitamin B-1 (Thiamine) deficiency. (You can thank Japanese sailors who suffered thiamine deficiencies from a primarily white-rice diet for the discovery and synthesis of Sulbutiamine in the 1950s, and the mainstream inclusion of B-vitamins in white rice available today.)
If you enjoy rice, eat it in moderation. If you’re gluten free, make sure you understand just how many products you’re consuming are rice-based. There are a lot of alternative gluten free products that are focusing more on tapioca starch and potato these days. Most of the rice-based gluten free products are the products that are trying to imitate a product which initially already had gluten in it, rather than just the principle of a whole foods diet excluding wheat.
Look for rice that is polished instead of whole grain rice or choose basmati rice. These are known to have lower arsenic levels. It might be difficult to find out exactly where your rice is grown and how prevalent the arsenic is in the soil of that geographic region, but this could also help you reduce your inadvertent arsenic consumption while you enjoy your rice.
Xu L, Polya DA, Li Q, Mondal D. Association of low-level inorganic arsenic exposure from rice with age-standardized mortality risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in England and Wales [published online ahead of print, 2020 Jun 29]. Sci Total Environ. 2020;743:140534. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140534
Potera, Carol. “U.S. rice serves up arsenic.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 115,6 (2007): A296. doi:10.1289/ehp.115-a296