A recent article in Consumer Reports highlighted growing concern that rice and rice products–everything from the brown rice in your sushi to Rice Krispies–are contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic. Yes, that arsenic, the colorless, odorless chemical that Cary Grant’s sweet old aunts used to dispose of lonely old men in the classic flick “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Based on preliminary data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the findings of its own scientists, Consumer Reports is warning consumers to reduce consumption of rice and food products made from rice immediately.
Before we look at the legitimacy of these claims, here are a few things you should know about arsenic:
- Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, much of which is derived from eroded rocks, which then permeates our soil and water. A lot of arsenic, however, has been added to the environment by humans in the form of pesticides (banned in the US since the 1980s) and in animal feed (for which arsenic-containing compounds are still permitted). Rice, which grows in wetlands, is the ideal “arsenic sponge,” but arsenic is also present in our drinking water, and in other grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Chronic arsenic toxicity may occur after repeated or prolonged exposure to arsenic. It can cause: changes in skin pigmentation; cancers of the skin, bladder, lung and possibly liver, kidney, and prostate; diabetes; nerve damage; vascular disease; and possibly heart disease. (Note: This type of toxicity is different from the acute arsenic poisoning seen in the the movies.)
- There is no federal limit on the amount of arsenic in food, although there is a limit of 10 parts per billion in drinking and bottled water.
Preliminary Data Lacks Evidence of Harm
Should we be scared? No, not based on what we know so far. Consider these numbers: According to preliminary data from the FDA, one cup of rice contains between 3.7 and 6.7 micrograms (ug) of arsenic (the Consumer Reports numbers are a little higher–up to 8.7 ug per serving). This is about the same amount of arsenic that you’d get from drinking one liter of water (most Americans consume two liters daily), and presumably most of us aren’t suffering from arsenic toxicity. To be fair, however, we don’t know how many cancers may be attributed to arsenic.
The FDA hasn’t officially recommended that we change our diets. As of now, there is no evidence that the arsenic found in rice actually causes any disease. The FDA is in the process of testing hundreds of additional samples of multiple varieties of rice from different geographic locations. However, even once this analysis is complete, the FDA still may not be able to establish a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between arsenic levels in food and the risk of chronic disease.
Until more is known about the risk of arsenic in our food supply, it’s probably safe to continue eating a balanced diet that includes rice and other whole grains. If you want to be proactive, wash rice before cooking it; that may help remove some of the outer contaminants. And stay away from anyone claiming to be Cary Grant’s maiden aunt–you never know what she might add to your rice pilaf!