Arsenic in Rice: Should We Be Concerned?

Consumer Reports released a study that found levels of arsenic in many rice products, but should we cut the grain out completely?

Recent health headlines may have left you staring in horror at the bright orange box of Uncle Ben’s, the cylindrical package of rice cakes and the animated faces of Snap, Crackle and Pop in your kitchen.

A study released by Consumer Reports last week surveyed more than 60 rice products—ranging from infant cereals to rice pasta—and found “worrisome” arsenic levels in nearly all of them.

Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element in our air, water and soil and it makes its way into more food than just rice. While the levels of arsenic found in rice aren’t high enough to kill anyone on the spot, exposure to arsenic over time can be dangerous. Human and animal studies have shown that exposure to arsenic—even in the parts per billion range—can lead to cancer years later. According to the Centers for Disease Control, arsenic is linked to lung, bladder and liver cancer.

But don’t ditch Uncle Ben just yet.

“There are tons of health benefits of rice, so you don’t want to avoid it completely,” says Krista Yoder-Latortue, registered dietician and executive director and owner of Family Foods LLC. Rice, especially brown rice, is a good source of fiber and complex carbohydrates that will keep you energized throughout the day.

And while Consumer Reports has called for federal standards on the levels of arsenic in rice, the FDA has yet to find evidence that rice in unsafe to eat. Still, they may consider standards and are working with other government agencies, industry, consumer groups and scientists to assess the issue and the risks.

In the meantime, changing up our diets a little can’t hurt.

“This is a great opportunity for people to start exploring other grain products,” Yoder-Latortue says. She recommends couscous as one alternative; it has a similar texture to rice and it’s a whole grain which ties in the health factor. Another great one is quinoa, a seed that is also similar to rice in addition to being gluten-free and a (bonus!) complete protein.

As far as baby cereals go, Yoder-Latortue says that you should still start with rice cereals, but introduce wheat and oat cereals when your child is ready. Studies are actually showing that delaying the introduction of wheat products can lead to allergies.

The news about rice shouldn’t necessarily scare us so much as it should remind us to be mindful of what we’re chowing down on.

“The biggest message to take away from this is to eat everything in moderation,” Yoder-Latortue says. A varied diet will provide more nutrients. Consuming too much of any one particular food can lead to consequences down the road, so be sure to keep your diet interesting.

>> This article first appeared in the Liberty City Press