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Arsenic in Rice - the levels and what to do about it

Arsenic in Rice - the levels and what to do about it

Unravelling the mystery of arsenic in your rice - and which is best to eat

Arsenic kills you right? You just have to ingest enough of it. Arsenic is like mercury - it is what is called 'cumulative', which means it stays in your body and accumulates as you ingest more - storing permanently in hair, nails, and bone. Children are particularly susceptible.

After years of pesticide use, large areas of land that now grow rice have such high levels of arsenic in the soil, that while it might not be killing you, it could certainly be at least risking your health.

The arsenic fuss was originally bought to the fore in the USA by a 2012 Consumer's Union Report investigating the level of arsenic in USA and Asian rice. The report exposed some fairly alarming levels of arsenic in rice grown in certain parts of the USA and Asia. Separate reports detail some pretty alarming data on arsenic in Australian rice.



RICE TYPICALLY HAS TEN TIMES MORE INORGANIC ARSENIC THAN OTHER FOODS AND THAT IS A WORRY FOR PEOPLE WHO EAT A LOT OF IT. ESPECIALLY OUR CHILDREN.  CHILDREN AND BABIES TYPICALLY EAT ABOUT 3 TIMES AS MUCH RICE AS GROWN UPS - AND THE PROBLEM IS THE RISK OF BLADDER, LUNG, AND SKIN CANCER, AS WELL AS HEART DISEASE AND TYPE 2 DIABETES.

Pretty much all rice shows some level of arsenic, even organic rice, which, when it comes to arsenic, is no different. The is because it isn't about the way the rice is grown now in terms of chemicals, but rather what's already in the soil and water.

Added to this, rice tends to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops because it is grown in flooded fields which make it much easier for arsenic to leave the soil and enter the rice plant and grains. On average, rice contains around 10 to 20 times more arsenic than other cereal crops.

What are options to limit arsenic intake?

First up, if you are a sushi addict and you buy it ready made from your favourite lunch bar, you are pretty much at the mercy of where they source their rice. But it's certainly worth asking in case they actually know.

According to the Consumer's Union Report, it is safer to buy organic Basmati rice from India and Pakistan or Jasmine rice from Thailand. 

What about Australian rice?

Australia grows about 2 percent of the world's rice. Unfortunately, a 2014 report by National Library of Medicine tell us that concentrations of arsenic in Australian grown organic brown, medium grain brown and organic white rice were between 2 and 8 times higher than imported Asian rice. 

Steer clear of brown rice as it can contain more than twice the levels of arsenic in white rice (in the husk). Consumer Reports say that brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan is the best choice, with about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices.

Consumer Reports

There have been many many studies done around the world on the levels of arsenic in rice and because many are conducted in conjunction with government agencies and health departments, it's quite easy to get data on both the levels of arsenic in specific rice and also the recommended intake levels by ethnicity and age.

Cleaning rice by soaking, washing & cooking

Apart from giving up rice altogether, when you are cooking, you can limit the amount of arsenic you are ingesting by washing it several times. Wash the rice until your water runs clear before you even start to cook it. Cook your rice in a large volume of water - up to 6 or 7 times as much. When the rice is cooked, rinse it again in hot water before serving. Rinsing and using more water removes about 30 percent of the rice's inorganic arsenic content.

If you are keen, researchers at Queen's University in Belfast found that cooking rice in multiple changes of water, rinsing between changes, resulted in a significant drop in arsenic levels—as much as 57 percent. Better still, cooking rice in a simple coffee perculator where water was being constantly circulated, reduced arsenic levels up to 85 percent. 

And if you can soak your rice overnight first and then cook, rinse, before any of these washing and cooking decisions, researchers Mosley and Meharg say you will have only 18% of arsenic remaining.

You will also notice that some packaged rice now gives information about washing requirements on the packet. 

Alternatives to rice

According to Consumer Reports, the gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta had negligible levels of inorganic arsenic. Bulgur, barley, and farro, which contain gluten, also had very little arsenic.


Photos:  Unsplash - Monika Grabkow / J 329172 / Van Ny C Tang  |  Shutterstock

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