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Arsenic: the Poison Lurking in Your Rice

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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.

References

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

2 COMMENTS

  1. So Arsrnic in small amounts can kill cancer, just wondering if maybe small amounts are ok in humans and may even have benefits?

    • Hi Serena,
      That's an interesting thought! I think, as with most things, the dose makes the poison (as they say). This is the basis for homeopathy, introducing trace amounts of harmful or allergen causing plants, herbs, and flowers to stimulate the body's responses (as far as I understand it without being a homeopathic practitioner).

      I think its the bioaccumulation that causes the problems. Just like the vivid green wallpaper which got its color from arsenic in the Victorian era, it wasn't necessary for the person to consume the arsenic directly for it to cause arsenic poisoning over time. Arsenic has been used for many ailments and had its hayday during the nineteenth century, but we didn't know how bad it was. I'd hesitate to say that it may have any benefits that would outweigh the significant risks associated with it. Using other popular “poisons” for medicine, like mercury for syphilis, has been part of medical culture, but often the side effects were worse than the disease. Arsenic is naturally occurring in the earth and soil, and that's why we measure it in our drinking water. I think that if arsenic did kill cancer, it would also kill off a lot of other healthy tissues and cells along with it.

      So if we're exposed to a lot of arsenic from drinking tap water or filtered water that isn't filtering out arsenic (which is possible), and we're eating a lot of rice, and we're coming into arsenic in some other form, we've tripled our bioaccumulation. Being exposed to arsenic in rice by itself wouldn't seem like it posed a huge problem–until we start looking into studies like these. It would seem even small amounts can be harmful based on this study.

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