Rice is a versatile and cheap staple grain, with a toothy texture and comforting toasty flavor. Unfortunately, rice often contains alarmingly high levels of arsenic, a heavy metal and known carcinogen. But how and why is there arsenic in rice? And should you be alarmed? And how can you reduce your exposure? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is arsenic and how can it be dangerous?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in the earth’s crust. There are two general forms of arsenic: organic and inorganic.
Arsenic is found in many places. It is used in pesticides, wood thinners, and tobacco products, and can be emitted from volcanoes and mines. Arsenic often ends up in our soils, and can leach into our drinking water.
Alarmingly, arsenic is tasteless, colorless, and odorless, and many people are unaware the foods and beverages they are consuming may contain arsenic.
Most people are exposed to arsenic via ingestion, meaning they eat or drink arsenic-contaminated foods (like rice) and/pr beverages (like arsenic-contaminated water or apple juice).
Inorganic arsenic exposure can elicit a variety of health impacts. Acute impacts include abdominal pain, diarrhea, muscle cramping, and death, and long-term exposure can lead to changes in skin (including pigmentation changes, lesions, and hyperkeratosis), diabetes, cardiovascular disease, endocrine and immune system dysfunction, and heart attacks.
Inorganic arsenic is also a known carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. Links between arsenic exposure and bladder and lung cancer are well-established.
Infant exposure to arsenic is linked to cancer later in life. Research has shown that the more servings an infant is exposed to arsenic-containing white rice predicted is directly positively correlated with increased risk of cancer later in life.
Wait, how and why is there arsenic in rice?
Arsenic is often present in soil, and foods grown in arsenic-contaminated soil will absorb it.
Rice grows under flooded conditions, and because of this, inorganic arsenic becomes more readily absorbed into the plants. Rice often contains 10-20 times more arsenic than other cereal grains. The exact amount depends on the conditions of the soil in the area the rice was grown.
Some varieties of rice also contain more arsenic than others.
What rice products have the most arsenic?
Different varieties of rice contain different amounts of arsenic. Brown rice often contains more arsenic than white rice. Alarmingly, infants’ brown and white rice cereals both contain more arsenic than plain white rice (but less than brown rice).
The amount of arsenic in rice-based infant-rice cereals is particularly alarming, given that these are often some of the first foods introduced to weaning babies, and they often consume them in large amounts, during a vulnerable period of their lives.
Besides plain rice and rice cereals, arsenic may be in rice-based products, including rice-noodles and rice-based cereals. Many gluten-free products are rice-based, putting people who consume these often at increased risk.