Everyone knows that arsenic is a dangerous poison.
It’s considered one of the world’s most toxic elements.
So, the last place you would think to find this contaminant is in your food…but that’s not the case. In reality, this heavy metal is hiding in plain sight in many of our foods, especially within rice.
Arsenic levels in rice have been rising for years and now, more than ever, they are reaching dangerous levels. And what’s more alarming is that these dangerous arsenic levels filter down to every other product that uses this staple food as an ingredient.
Foods like rice milk (1), rice bran (2, 3), any rice-based breakfast cereal (4), baby foods that use rice, like cereal (5, 6), rice crackers (7), brown rice syrup and all snacks that include rice syrup like protein bars. (8)
Where Does Arsenic Come From?
Arsenic is naturally formed in the Earth’s crust. It is found in over 200 minerals, most commonly, however, in a mineral known as arsenopyrite.
Essentially, almost 33 percent of all arsenic originates naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, the most common source deriving from volcanoes.
Other sources include arsenic-containing vapor generated from arsenic salts. We also find “inorganic” arsenic (arsenic that comes from a geological source) in groundwater commonly used for drinking in several parts of the world, including Bangladesh, India and Taiwan.
“Organic” arsenic contains carbon and is typically found in sea-living organisms like fish and shellfish. While both types of arsenic are considered detrimental to health, “inorganic” arsenic poses the most concern.
The effects from arsenic poisoning are many and range from immediate death to long-term repercussions that include such things as cancer.
The degree of toxicity, however, is determined by the type of arsenic, i.e. inorganic or organic, as well as the chemical form encountered.
If exposed to arsenic, it can affect every part of your body including your skin, lungs, heart, blood vessels, immune system, kidneys, brain, your reproductive system, gut and even your nervous system.
Why is Rice so Dangerous?
Apart from naturally occurring arsenic sources such as ground water, soil and rocks, this potent element can also be more concentrated in certain areas than others.
These natural sources can enter our bodies through the food chain where they silently accumulate. But natural sources of arsenic are not the only sources. Today, manmade sources are reaching all-time highs. Chemical pesticides and herbicides, wood preservatives, phosphate fertilizers, industrial waste, mining activities, coal burning and smelting all contribute to arsenic levels. (9,10,11)
And when the arsenic in these man-made products makes its way into the groundwater (along with every other chemical in these products) it eventually reaches our wells and other major water supplies. It becomes a deadly circle of poisons when farmers then use this contaminated water to irrigate their crops. (12)
And because of the density of manufacturing in certain areas, as well as things like prevailing winds, water currents etc., some areas become highly polluted, making them a hot-bed for this heavy metal (13,14). As it turns out, the rice paddies in Asia are key sources of inorganic arsenic contamination.
Rice paddies are naturally primed with arsenic. These flooded fields use massive amounts of irrigated water that is full of both naturally occurring arsenic and manmade sources. (15)
As time passes, the original sources of arsenic, combined with the continued onslaught of new sources, accumulate in the soil, making a bad situation worse. (16).
Add to that the fact that rice naturally absorbs arsenic more efficiently than most other foods such as wheat and barley, and this seemingly healthy food becomes a silent killer. (17)
And the problem is further exacerbated when people use arsenic-contaminated water to boil their rice. Studies show that arsenic levels rise significantly in rice when it is boiled, likely due to water evaporation leaving concentrated arsenic levels. (18)
Arsenic poisoning is no joke. You have undoubtedly seen a murder mystery or two where the intended victim unknowingly ingests arsenic and then almost immediately collapses to their death. While the chances of you consuming significant enough amounts from one bowl of rice to cause such dramatic and deadly results is slim to none, the long-term effects from accumulated poisoning are just as serious.
A 2007 study showed that even in this day and age, more than 137 million people in over 70 countries are affected by arsenic poisoning resulting from drinking water alone. (19)
This does not include the number of people that are unknowingly ingesting arsenic in their food every day. As arsenic accumulates in your body, you will start to have symptoms that begin with headaches, slight confusion, diarrhea, as well as drowsiness.
Like in the Hollywood murder mysteries, you will develop the tell-tale sign of arsenic poisoning—changes in the color of your fingernails, called “leukonychia striata,” also known as Mees’s lines, or Aldrich-Mees’s lines. (20)
Once the poisoning reaches the acute stage, you can expect severe diarrhea, vomiting, including vomiting blood as well as blood in your urine, severe muscle cramps, hair loss, debilitating stomach pain, and of course, more convulsions.
Typically, arsenic poisoning starts in your lungs, skin, kidneys, and your liver. (21) Lastly, your body shuts down, sending you into a coma or you simply die.
Even if you or your children do not have acute arsenic poisoning immediately, even small amounts can start to accumulate and cause health issues that can affect your nerve cells and even your brain function (22,23).
How To Reduce Your Risk of Arsenic Exposure
The obvious answer is to simply limit your rice intake but that is not as simple as it sounds since, like soy, rice is also used in an array of other products.
Studies also show that the type of rice, and the location from which it was grown, determine the extent of arsenic in the rice.
For instance, white rice grown in California, India, and Pakistan, contains approximately 50 percent less inorganic arsenic than other types of rice.
Rice of any type grown in Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana (which accounts for 76 percent of domestic rice), except quick cooking and sushi rice, has the highest amounts of arsenic. This is because the south-central region of the US is where cotton was typically grown, a crop that used to be heavily treated with arsenical pesticides to combat the boll weevil beetle.
You should also be aware that brown rice contains about 80 percent more arsenic than the same type of white rice simply because arsenic is absorbed into the fibrous outer layer of the rice, which is removed when making white rice.
You may be thinking that you can just eat organic rice, but organic rice absorbs arsenic in the same way that non-organic rice does, so in this case, organic is not better.(29)
In a study conducted by Consumer Reports, 223 samples of rice products were tested, including baby cereals, hot cereals, rice vinegar, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes, and rice crackers. These products were tested for inorganic arsenic as well as two forms of organic arsenic called DMA and MMA, which are now considered “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Researchers found DMA in 32 of the rice products tested, including those from the south central states, California, India, and Thailand. (30)
If you are pregnant, arsenic also poses a danger to your unborn child. (31) A 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) revealed that for every gram of rice a women eats, there will be a 1 percent increase in her arsenic levels. To give you a reference, 1 gram of rice is equal to about 48 grains. While this may not seem like much, remember that arsenic can accumulate in your body over time and is almost twice as toxic to infants and children. (32)
While the USA Rice Federation publically downplays the effects of arsenic on health for obvious reasons, as of April 1, 2016, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to reduce inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal, a leading source of arsenic exposure in infants.” (33)
They further proposed an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. (34) There are currently no set or legal government limits on arsenic in rice or rice products.
How To Detox Arsenic From Your Body
Consumer Reports, however has been doing in-depth research into the issue for several years now and has determined guidelines you can use based on the newest research.
1. Eat Less Rice Products
Essentially, they recommend that adults eat no more than 1-3 servings of rice or rice-based foods per week, depending, of course, on the rice or rice product. Eating this much gives your body enough time to flush out the toxic metal.
The report further suggests that children eat a maximum of 1.25 servings of rice, rice pasta, rice breakfast cereal or rice pasta per week or 1 small serving of rice-based infant cereal per day.
And they warned parents not to give a child under 5 any rice-based beverage on a regular basis. (35)
2. Keep Your Kidneys Healthy
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, around 70 percent of arsenic is excreted in the urine, within a few days after ingestion.
3. Try These Rice Alternatives
Alternatively, you can choose to consume other grains that are shown to have lower or even no arsenic. The following are grains that contain lower or negligible amounts of arsenic.
- Polenta or grits
4. Eat Foods High In Sulfur
5. Have a Serving of Dark Leafy Greens Every Day
- Swiss chard
6. Key Nutrients To Focus On
These nutrients can protect against the effects of arsenic poisoning.
- Vitamin C
Take at least 2000 mg Vitamin C daily. It is an excellent chelating agent.
If you do decide to eat rice, limit it as per the above guidelines.
You can also lower your exposure to inorganic arsenic in any rice by rinsing the uncooked rice thoroughly.
When cooking, instead of following the instructions, use a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice. After the allotted cooking time, drain the excess water from the rice and serve as usual.
In Asia, this has always been the standard way to make rice. We only starting cooking rice so that all of the water was absorbed as a way to maintain more of the nutrients.
Research shows that rinsing your rice before cooking and then using more water to boil it, removes about 30 percent of the rice’s inorganic arsenic content. So, if it comes down to losing some of the nutritional value of the rice over poisoning yourself or your family with arsenic, the choice seems pretty clear.