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Rice Rage: Arsenic in Your Food and 3 Ways to Stay Safe

by Jarrod Denson

Arsenic: the king of poisons that branded dozens of historical figures as infamous poisoners, poisonees, or simply unlucky people who picked the wrong kind of makeup during the Renaissance. But dangerous levels of arsenic in innocuous foods like apple juice and rice? If you believe eating organic brown rice is healthier, you're in for a surprise.

The trend of examining levels of arsenic in various foods was brought to the public's attention on The Dr. Oz Show in late 2011, when the show conducted an investigation into the amount of inorganic (cancer-causing) arsenic in different types of apple juice. This led to Consumer Reports completing a study in January 2012 on various juices and the amount of arsenic that each contained. The findings were alarming, so the diligent folks at Consumer Reports decided to investigate the matter further. Their discoveries led to another article in November of last year that detailed the dangers of arsenic in other types of food, specifically rice-based foods.

The study revealed that arsenic levels in rice are almost too high for American water standards, especially those in New Jersey. The national standard for arsenic levels is 10 parts per billion, lowered from 50 in 2006. The original plan was to make it 5 ppb, but only the state of New Jersey was able to pass legislation to limit levels to this point. There is no limit for levels of arsenic in most types of food, but Consumer Reports used New Jersey's 5 ppb measurement standard for their article.

The report revealed that many different types of rice and rice products contained arsenic levels well over this 5 ppb limit, some as high as 9 ppb. The study showed that some rice products were more dangerous than others, and oddly enough, organic products seemed to suffer disproportionately. Additionally, brown rice was determined to be more dangerous than any other particular strain of rice.

Why does rice have arsenic in it? And why do the healthier options seem to get the short end of the spoon? According to Consumer Reports and the FDA, it boils down to the way that rice is produced. Rice is often grown in flooded paddies, which makes it easier for the grain to soak up inorganic arsenic into the roots. The bran portion of the rice grain remains on brown rice, which can lead to higher arsenic levels in the grain.

Consumer Reports has now called for stricter regulations on arsenic in food and challenged the FDA to do something about it. The FDA stated that, based on their data, consumers need not change their consumption of rice or rice products. They have also stated that they found no data that shows a difference between the levels of arsenic in organic and non-organic rice.

Many bloggers, writers, and doctors are making a myriad of suggestions to their patients and readers about their rice consumption. Some of the practical advice offered:

1. When shopping for rice, choose aromatic or plain white rice over brown. While brown rice shows the highest levels of inorganic arsenic to date, aromatic rices like basmati or jasmine seem to have the lowest.

2. If you’re a parent shopping for a healthy breakfast cereal, try to avoid rice-based cereals. The risk isn’t astronomical, but there are plenty of other healthy and balanced cereals for your kids. Sorry Snap, Crackle and Pop.

3. Vary your diet, particularly grains. The Consumer Reports article has a great table on how many servings of rice you should have every week, based on your age and the type of rice product. It isn't a ridiculously small amount, even if rice is traditionally a diet staple. Even if you're working with a gluten-free diet, as many rice consumers are, there are plenty of other grains out there. Now might be the perfect time to try quinoa, amaranth or millet.

If you want to learn more about arsenic levels in foods, Consumer Reports and the FDA are great resources. They may have slightly different views on the gravity of the issue, but they both offer some great information, as well as useful and practical advice. If you’re interested in getting involved, the Consumer’s Union is a good place to start. Send a letter to your local congressman or captain of industry to call for higher standards and more accountability.

Do you agree with the FDA's findings or Consumer Reports regarding arsenic levels in organic versus non-organic rice? Will you stop shopping for brown rice because it has higher levels of arsenic? Tweet us @OrganicSpaMag #ricerage

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