Rice, seemingly so bland and innocuous, harbors the same deadly poison beloved by Victorian mystery writers. In a new study, Consumer Reports has found varying levels of arsenic in more than 60 rices and rice products. Among the consumer goods that contained “worrisome levels” of arsenic were organic rice baby cereal and rice breakfast cereals.
Consumer Reports tested more than 200 samples of a host of rice products, including infant cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes and rice crackers. They bought products often used by people on gluten-free or other special diets, including rice pasta, rice flour and rice drinks like rice milk. They included iconic labels and store brands, organic products and conventional ones.
According to their “troubling” report: “In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms. We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern. Moreover, the foods we checked are popular staples, eaten by adults and children alike.” Noting that “the Environmental Protection Agency assumes there is actually no 'safe' level of exposure to inorganic arsenic,” the researchers strongly suggest people limit their consumption of rice products.
Arsenic is found in soil and water and it enters the rice when it is grown. The rice with the highest levels of arsenic was farmed in Texas and Louisiana, where cotton growers used arsenic pesticides to control boll weevils a century ago. Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told CBS News, “That arsenic is still in the soil, and rice is very effective at pulling it out of the soil and it concentrates in the rice.”
Large doses of arsenic cause death, but exposure to the poison over time causes lung, skin and bladder cancer and is also very harmful to babies' brain development. Landrigan recommended that parents avoid rice altogether, or just rice that was grown in Texas, Louisiana and Missouri. (No more eating dirty rice in New Orleans, apparently.)
“Stay with California rice, stay with Asian rice or when in doubt go with barley, go with oatmeal,” he said.
In the samples tested by Consumer Reports, brown rice always contained more arsenic than white rice because it includes the plant's outer bran, where arsenic concentrates. Among all tested rice, the highest levels of inorganic arsenic per serving were found in Martin Long Grain Brown rice, followed by Della Basmati Brown, Carolina Whole Grain Brown, Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown, and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value Long Grain Brown.
Among other findings: People who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not.
The consumer group is urging the Food and Drug Administration to set limits for arsenic in rice products and fruit juices “as a starting point.” Currently the FDA only sets arsenic limits in drinking water. The FDA says it is studying arsenic in rice and rice products to determine the level and types of arsenic typically found and to identify ways to reduce it.
To limit your risk of exposure to arsenic, Consumer Reports recommends rinsing raw rice thoroughly before cooking, using a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice and draining the excess water. This should remove about 30% of the inorganic arsenic. They also suggest eating grains other than rice, such as wheat, oats, quinoa, millet and amaranth. They say that babies should not eat rice cereal more than once a day tops, and that children under age 5 should not drink rice milk at all.
Click here for a PDF with the complete study findings, including the levels of arsenic in various rice products.
Now feel free to freak the eff out.
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