- Food and Cooking
Arsenic in Rice -- Is it Really a Problem?
First it was mercury in fish. But it turns out it is not such a concern afterall. And now it is arsenic in rice. We are contaminating our food supply.
It was not the fish fault that they got mercury. We polluted their waters with it.
Fertilizers and pesticides containing arsenic are adding to the naturally occurring arsenic in the soil. The rice being grown in watery soil soaks up these mineral from the earth quite readily.
You may have heard about arsenic in rice. It was mentioned in all the major news sources including ...
Food Products with Arsenic
Arsenic was found in all types of rice -- long grain, short grain, whole grain, brown rice, white rice, jasmine, basmati, and so on.
Not only is it found in rice, but arsenic is found in other products made from rice including some baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals.
Other food products such apple and grape juice have also been found to contain arsenic. Again, this is due to our polluted environment. Consumer Reports found 10% of juice samples has arsenic levels above the drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion. [reference]
Feeds for non-organic chickens intentionally contains arsenic, according to New York Times article.
Consumer Reports found that rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas had higher arsenic levels than their other samples. These rice account for 76% of the rice in the United States. Afterall, the United State is the leading user of arsenic. 
Arsenic is a Carcinogen
Arsenic is a heavy metal chemical element found in many minerals. Wikipedia says "Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to multicellular life".
It is true that arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil and water and that most plants will take up some arsenic. However, the use of arsenic-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers increases the arsenic content.
Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen, meaning that it has the potential to cause cancer. Organic arsenic is less toxic, but still troubling. Here organic does not mean "organic" as in "organic food". Organic is a chemistry classification of compounds that contains carbon-hydrogen bonds that are typically found in living organisms. Inorganic compounds do not have this carbon-hydrogen bonds.
Which form was found in rice? Both forms. Consumer reports says ...
"In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms."
Studies found elevated levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium in certain fertilizer products. But that "hazardous constituents in inorganic fertilizers generally are not likely to pose risks to public health", according to Minnesota Department of Health. [reference]
Inorganic arsenic is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen. It has been shown to cause cancer of the liver, bladder, lung, and skin in humans when exposed at high enough levels. [reference]
What those levels are is unclear. And whether arsenic in rice are at that level is also subject to debate.
How Much Arsenic is in Rice?
Some say that the level of arsenic in rice is not high enough to pose any danger and that the risk of arsenic is overblown with all the news reports. The human body can eliminate arsenic via urine. Afterall, that is how they test for arsenic exposure. The measure how much arsenic is coming out in the urine.
How high are the levels of arsenic in rice? It varies widely. But looking at the data in the Consumer Report article, arsenic levels of 100 to 200 parts-per-billion (ppb) of "total arsenic" is not uncommon. "Total arsenic" meaning combined both of inorganic and organic forms of arsenic.
There are currently no federal standard on what is considered safe levels of arsenic in food. However, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, European Pharmocopoeia, and Norwegian Medicinal Standard sets 100 ppb as being safe levels for fish oil supplements. [reference] The level of arsenic in rice is around this level.
If we look at the more stringent drinking water standards, safe levels of arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts-per-billion. Since our body doesn't care if the arsenic come from our water or from our food, it would make sense that food limit of arsenic should be same. When talking about parts per billion, that may seem like a small amount. But perhaps trace amounts still matter.
China has set arsenic standard level in rice to no more than 0.15 microgram per kilogram of body weight per day. As an example, an 150 pound (68 kg) person would be okay to consume 10.2 micrograms of arsenic per day. Based on the Consumer Report data, all of their rice sample contains less than 10 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. A microgram is equal to one millionth (1/1,000,000) of a gram. In other words, one thousandth of a milligram. So that indeed is a small amount.
So if that person consume one serving of rice per day, it would be within China's safety limit. This may be fine for adults. But some say this is still to high for growing children and babies.
From general observation, it appears that the arsenic amount in rice is not acutely toxic, because millions of people are consuming rice on a daily basis without immediately getting sick. The question is whether the amount accumulates and whether any accumulated arsenic over the years can have a detrimental effect. No one really knows. And it varies from individual to individual depending on how well their body can detox the arsenic as well as genetics and nutritional status.
Nevertheless, there are some groups that are trying to ban arsenic laden fertilizers and arsenic-based pesticides. People are urging the FDA to set an arsenic level standard for rice.
Ways to Minimize Arsenic in Rice
To minimize arsenic in the rice, wash the rice thoroughly before cooking. Rinse it multiple times until the water runs clear.
Another method that is often used in traditional Asia is to use excessive water when cooking (such as a ratio of 6 parts water to 1 part rice) and then drain the excess water during or after cooking. This method can remove up to 30 percent of the rice's inorganic arsenic.
White rice tend to have less arsenic than brown rice simply because the exterior hull has been polished off in the white rice. But then you are also polishing off some of the healthy nutrients found in brown rice. So it is a trade off.
To be safe, some may want to limit the amount of rice products consumed daily. Daily rice product consumption can increase arsenic exposure in the human body by up to 44 percent. When consumed twice daily, it can lead to a 70 percent increase in arsenic exposure.
Organic rice will still contain arsenic because it picks it up from the naturally occurring arsenic in the soil. Although it would seem that organic rice would be better due to the elimination of arsenic from the pesticides and fertilizers. However, reports have said that arsenic level were the same in organic versus non-organic rice.[reference]
And that the FDA, ...
"unaware of any data that shows a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice vs. non-organic rice." [source]
There is no debate about the presence of arsenic in rice. It is certainly there as most experts agree. What is unknown is whether the level of arsenic is at dangerous levels or not. This is the controversy. And no one really knows for sure. Therefore, we can not advise you of what you should do.
But I can tell you what I do. Personally, I don't think the amount of arsenic in rice is anything to be too concerned about. My diet is close to the Paleolithic diet, so it is already low in carbohydrates and grain. I typically do not eat processed rice products (such as rice cakes or rice-based cereals). However, I do consume white, brown, and wild rice in moderation. Perhaps one serving ever other day or so. I rinse them thoroughly before cooking. And when I do get a burrito, I do not worry too much about the rice that is in it.
Rice and potatoes and other similar foods are what Paul Jaminet call "safe starches" in his book The Perfect Health Diet where "safe" refers to the fact that they do not contain the anti-nutrient gluten.
This article was written in September 2012 and is only opinion at the time of writing. By the time that you have come to read this, information may be dated and my opinion may have changed.