After years of worry, we may finally be starting to get some answers on how safe our rice really is. For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has tested a broad array of rice products for arsenic. In more than 1,300 samples, the agency found that levels vary but overall are too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects. The jury is still out on long-term health effects, though.
The agency tested various types of rice grain (e.g., white, jasmine, basmati) and rice products, including infant and toddler cereals; pasta; grain-based bars; snacks, such as rice cakes; cookies and pastries; desserts and puddings; and beverages, including beer, rice wine and rice water. (It determined that it would “not be meaningful” to release brand names.)
The testing confirmed results by other groups that found the highest levels of arsenic in brown rice. That is because arsenic concentrates in rice's hull, or outer portion, which is removed in white rice. So if you think you're being all healthy ordering the brown rice bowl, the joke is on you.
While the Environmental Protection Agency has set arsenic limits for drinking water at 10 parts per billion, the FDA found 160 ppb in brown rice and 79 in white rice (if you prefer your lunch liquid, there are 11 ppb in sake). Officials note, however, that Americans drink much more water than they eat rice, so if you're really worried about arsenic it may be time to never drink anything again. And that includes apple juice, which was just recently set to its own limit of 10 parts per billion by the FDA.
As we reported last year, Consumer Reports has called for the FDA to set limits for acceptable arsenic content in rice after it found levels potentially above what some consider safe (see their numbers — some significantly higher than what the FDA found — here).
Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety for Consumers Union, the policy division of Consumer Reports, told USA Today that the FDA's new report is “an important step that needed to be taken to deal with a food product that's particularly prone to taking up arsenic.”
People, particularly children, need to eat a diverse range of grains, the FDA says. “According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no medical evidence that rice cereal has any advantage over other cereal grains as a first solid food and infants would likely benefit from an array of grain cereals,” the FDA says in a statement about its findings.
If the low levels of arsenic found in rice posed a risk, health effects might be seen worldwide first, according Deborah Willenborg, spokeswoman for the USA Rice Federation, a rice trade group based in Washington, D.C. Americans eat on average 25 pounds of rice per person per year, compared with 210 pounds in China and 365 pounds in Vietnam, according to USA Today.
It is important to note that arsenic occurs naturally in soil worldwide, but most crops simply don't absorb it. Because rice is grown in flooded fields, the soil chemistry is changed, releasing arsenic so it can be absorbed much more easily by the rice's roots. The amount of arsenic in rice also varies due to local growing conditions. For example, California rice has lower arsenic levels than rice from Texas and Arkansas.
The FDA is crunching its numbers to come up with a risk assessment that will consider how many pounds of rice and rice products Americans eat and whether there is any possible danger due to long-term exposure, according to Michael Taylor, the agency's deputy commissioner for foods.
“There's no magic wand to reducing these levels, but there's a lot of collaboration looking at ways to possibly reduce arsenic levels through growing and processing practices,” Taylor told USA Today.
On the good-news side: Arsenic levels in rice do not appear to be increasing over time, the FDA says. And that's a bummer for Agatha Christie fans everywhere.
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