Arsenic In Rice: What You Should KnowFeb 02, 2023
The first time I learned that there's too often the cancer-causing type of arsenic in rice was when my eldest daughter, who's now 15 years old, was about 2 years old. Shocked and alarmed, I read as much as I could to try to assess how concerned I should be, and what I could do to make safer choices.
In preparing for the January 4, 2023 Ruan Powwow, it was interesting to see what new information researchers have learned since I dived deep into this from when I first learned about it in 2009 until I published my book A to Z of D-Toxing in 2015.
In this article, you'll learn more about arsenic in rice and rice byproducts, get answers to basic questions like Should you still eat rice?, and, as always, I'll share practical tips to reduce your arsenic exposure for when you're shopping for, and cooking, rice.
Is arsenic in rice?
Unfortunately, arsenic has been detected in a variety of rice: white, brown, jasmine, wild rice, basmati rice, Spanish rice, and more. Learning how to cut your arsenic intake is worthwhile especially because rice is an ingredient in countless products, comprises a significant portion of some people's diets, is often the first food of babies, and warmer temperatures from climate change may increase arsenic levels in rice and rice byproducts.
What are rice byproducts?
Whether or not you eat rice, there's a good chance that you consume rice through other food or beverage items that include rice as an ingredient. These "rice byproducts" include popular items like:
- gluten-free foods made with rice, like bread, crackers, and. pasta
- rice cereal and other breakfast cereals
- rice-based baking mixes
- rice-based snacks like rice cakes and cereal bars
- rice flour and items made of rice flour like cookies and pastries
- brown rice syrup
- rice-based infant formula
- rice milk
What is arsenic?
An element in the earth's crust, arsenic is naturally occurring. But it also exists at much higher levels in our food and water because of industrial processes and arsenic-containing pesticides that are mostly banned now but were used decades ago.
There are two forms of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is a chemistry term that is different from the organic labels used to indicate fewer synthetic compounds and processes on food and beverage items in grocery stores. Inorganic rice is a human carcinogen and is the type that's too often detected in rice.
Where does arsenic in rice come from?
As explained above, rice is naturally occurring but industrial processes and other human activities have led arsenic to exist at unnaturally high levels in soil and water. Since rice tends to absorb arsenic from its environment and rice often grows in flooded conditions, rice has more opportunity to absorb arsenic. That's why rice is more likely to be contaminated with arsenic than other crops.
Is arsenic in rice dangerous?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds as “carcinogenic to humans,” as reported by the American Cancer Society. However, the health risks of an arsenic-contaminated diet are still being studied as scientists have relatively recently discovered worrisome levels of arsenic in rice, and understanding the health effects is highly complex.
One challenge in assessing this is that the quantity and frequency of rice consumed varies greatly by culture, preferences, and food sensitivities. For example, certain Asian and Latin American cultures have rice as a staple of their diet, and many people feel better on a gluten-free diet which leads to more rice-based products in their diets.
While high levels of arsenic exposure are known to be harmful, low-level exposure to arsenic on a regular basis over a lifetime is being studied. According to a December 2022 fact sheet by the World Health Organization, long-term arsenic ingestion may contribute to developmental effects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease.
The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences, in 2013, and more recent key scientific reviews reported evidence of associations between long-term ingestion of arsenic and adverse human health effects, such as cardiovascular disease. . . . NRC stated that evidence suggests that food, particularly rice, may be a significant source of inorganic arsenic, the more toxic of the two forms of arsenic; however, consumption of rice and levels of arsenic in rice vary widely, making it difficult to estimate arsenic intake from rice. . .
Risks may be low, however. Conrad Choiniere, director of the Office of Analytics and Outreach at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition explained to the Washington Post:
A lifetime exposure to all rice products carries a risk of lung or bladder cancer in 39 out of 1 million Americans. For perspective, the number of lung and bladder cancer cases from all causes is 90,000 per million people over a lifetime — so rice doesn’t put you at a huge risk.
Of greater concern is early life exposure (including prenatally). The effects can be substantial—potentially adversely affecting neurodevelopment, cognitive development, intelligence, and memory. The WHO (2022) has warned:
Arsenic is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality, with impacts on child health (1), and exposure in utero and in early childhood has been linked to increases in mortality in young adults due to multiple cancers, lung disease, heart attacks and kidney failure (2). Numerous studies have demonstrated negative impacts of arsenic exposure on cognitive development, intelligence and memory (3).
Choiniere explained, It’s a bit different with infants and children, where even low-level exposure to arsenic has been associated with neurodevelopmental issues. . . . Arsenic may also harm pregnancy and boost infant mortality rates. When a baby is exposed to inorganic arsenic in utero, there’s an increased risk of cancer, lung disease, heart attacks, and kidney failure. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby's immune system.
Is there rice without arsenic?
Most likely, arsenic is present in all rice types since arsenic is so prevalent throughout our environment. However, considering the below can help you reduce arsenic from your rice consumption.
- White rice has been tested to have 50% less arsenic than brown rice, but it also has less fiber and vitamins, according to the article "Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products" by Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.
- Where your rice is grown matters. Regions that produce rice that test lower in arsenic include white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. White rice from California has been found to have 38 percent less inorganic arsenic than white rice from other parts of the country according to Consumer Reports (2014).
- Diversify your grains, especially if rice is a big part of your diet.
- While inorganic arsenic in brown rice has been detected at 80 percent higher than in white rice of the same type, brown has more nutrients so experts advise not eliminating it completely.
- On average, white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. has half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice, according to a 2014 Consumer Reports article.
- Lower-arsenic grains include amaranth, corn, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, flax, farro, millet, oats, polenta or grits, barley, and teff.
- Read labels on the food items (including snacks) you eat to see if they include rice, rice flour, or rice syrup. If they do, try to find new snack options that don’t have rice in them.
How much arsenic in rice is safe?
Currently, there are no federal guidelines on how much arsenic is safe in rice or rice byproducts. The FDA told Consumer Reports: "The FDA's ongoing assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority for the agency."
To better understand the inorganic arsenic levels found in rice and rice byproducts, when arsenic has been regulated, it's generally at 10 parts per billion. According to the American Cancer Society website, the:
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the maximum level of arsenic allowed in US drinking water to 10 parts per billion (ppb)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set a limit of 10 ppb for bottled water
- FDA proposed that manufacturers not exceed inorganic arsenic levels of 100 ppb in infant rice cereals and 10 ppb in apple juice. These recommendations for manufacturers are not legally enforceable.
Inorganic arsenic levels are present in various food items at levels far exceeding 10 ppb. For example, studies found the average concentrations of inorganic arsenic in the below popular food items, according to the USDA May 13, 2014 Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Risk Assessment Report (Revised March 2016):
- 92 parts per billion (ppb) in white rice
- 154 ppb in brown rice
- 104 ppb in infants’ dry white rice cereal
- 119 ppb in infants’ dry brown rice cereal
So, how much arsenic in rice is safe? Obviously, the less arsenic exposure the better. If rice and rice byproducts are a regular part of your diet, then aim to reduce your lifetime exposure. The health risks from arsenic exposure should be compared to the health benefits of including rice in your diet, which must also consider what you would eat instead.
Should you avoid rice?
No! Often, experts state that the nutritional benefits of rice outweigh the risks. However, you should choose rice and its byproducts that are lower in arsenic, monitor how often you consume rice, and diversify your grains. Personally, I think you should also remember that the long-term health risks from low levels of inorganic arsenic in our diets will take decades to understand. So choose mindfully and keep learning more. New information is revealed with new studies. And arsenic levels in soil and water are expected to be exacerbated by climate change.
When shopping for lower arsenic rice:
To reduce arsenic in your diet, consider the below when shopping:
- White rice tends to have less inorganic arsenic than brown rice
- White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan tends to have lower inorganic arsenic levels than comparable options
- Sushi rice from the U.S. tends to have lower inorganic arsenic levels than comparable options
- Instant rice tends to have lower inorganic arsenic levels
- Quick-cooking rice tends to have lower inorganic arsenic levels
- When buying brown rice, choose Basmati brown rice from India, Pakistan, or California; it has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rice according to Consumer Reports (2014).
- Don't assume that a product with the USDA Organic label has less inorganic arsenic. It may not necessarily. Organic and non-organic rice have been found to have about the same amount of arsenic. But, rice with the USDA Organic label may have less of other contaminants, like pesticides.
When cooking rice, there are some steps that can further reduce your arsenic exposure.
- Check the water you cook rice in to ensure that it does not contain high arsenic since rice absorbs water as it cooks. You should not use water with more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic for cooking.
- Before cooking, rinse your rice with lots of water to reduce the arsenic concentration. While the results of studies on this are inconsistent with how helpful this is (see FDA research below), it might help. Just consider that the more rinsing there is, the more nutrients may be depleted too.
- FDA research "shows that rinsing rice before cooking has a minimal effect on the arsenic content of the cooked grain and will wash off iron, folate, thiamine and niacin from polished and parboiled rice."
- Cook your rice like you cook pasta (use six times as much water as rice and drain the rice after it’s finished cooking) to get rid of about half the arsenic. The FDA says that this method can reduce arsenic levels by up to 60 percent. However, Consumer Reports (2014) reported "even though you may sacrifice some of rice's nutritional value, research has shown that rinsing and using more water removes about 30 percent of the rice's inorganic arsenic content."
Since babies and children tend to eat 3 times more per pound of body weight than adults, if eating food with arsenic in it, their arsenic exposure can be 3 times more than their adults. Be sure to audit your children's diet for rice and rice by-products. Children are more vulnerable to inorganic arsenic exposure than adults.
Kacie Barnes, a Dallas-based registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics, shared in a 2021 Washington Post article, titled "Arsenic in rice: What is and isn’t safe for adults and children," that children over age 5 should not eat rice products more than four times per week. What's alarming are findings from Consumer Reports (2014):
We looked at data released by the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 on the inorganic arsenic content of 656 processed rice-containing products. We found that rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than our 2012 data showed. According to the results of our new tests, one serving of either could put kids over the maximum amount of rice we recommend they should have in a week. Rice cakes supply close to a child's weekly limit in one serving. Rice drinks can also be high in arsenic, and children younger than 5 shouldn't drink them instead of milk. (Learn the new rice rules about weekly servings.)
It took a while longer to realize that one of my daughter's earliest foods was rice cereal and that even though it was homemade from organic rice, it most likely contained arsenic.
Expectant parents, be extra mindful!
The US FDA (2016) estimates that approximately 90% of pregnant women eat rice grain or rice products, which is worrisome since its literature review indicates that:
fetuses may have increased susceptibility to adverse health effects from maternal inorganic arsenic intake. The literature also suggests that exposure to inorganic arsenic during infancy and early childhood can have neurotoxic effects, although whether these effects are lasting is unclear. At this time, a quantitative assessment of non-cancer health effects associated with arsenic exposure in utero (through maternal intake) and during infancy and early childhood has not yet been conducted. We are working with EPA on this issue as data become available.
Expert advice is conflicting and individuals need to assess their unique dietary. habits. For example, "Although the average [inorganic arsenic] concentration is higher in brown rice than in white rice, the majority of the risk is from white rice, because more white rice is eaten" USDA May 13, 2014 Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Risk Assessment Report (Revised March 2016).
- "Don’t eliminate rice completely from your diet, but find out how much arsenic you and your family may be consuming through food, water, and other sources.
- If you eat a lot of rice or other foods that are higher in arsenic, eat them less often or vary with other types of food that are lower in arsenic.
- Check-in on the latest recommendations. Resources include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports which provides details on arsenic levels in rice products.
Experts are not advising that you avoid rice and rice byproducts but that you become mindful of ways to reduce your arsenic exposure. Key tips to reduce your arsenic exposure include diversifying your grains so that your diet is not overly concentrated on one type of rice, cooking your rice like you would pasta and discarding excess water after cooking, researching your food items at the Environmental Working Group Food Scores, and be extra conservative about arsenic exposure during the prenatal, postnatal, and early childhood stages.
To learn more, you can watch a Ruan Powwow below.
About Sophia Ruan Gushée
Sophia Ruan Gushée is a preeminent nontoxic lifestyle expert, author of the critically acclaimed books A to Z of D-Toxing and EMF Detox Workbook, creator of D-Tox Academy and 40-Day Home Detox, and host of the Practical Nontoxic Living podcast.
She has helped thousands of people eliminate harmful—often hidden—chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields from their homes and lifestyles. Based on more than 15 years of tracking the latest research, she believes that removing these toxins is the overlooked key to unlocking greater mindfulness, mental clarity, emotional harmony, and physical healing.
Sophia also works with companies and served on the prestigious Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and the exclusive Well+Good Council. She has appeared or been featured on the most popular health and wellness platforms including The Doctor Oz Show, Health magazine, Family Circle magazine, MindBodyGreen, and much more. You can learn more about Sophia by clicking here: Sophia Ruan Gushée.
The sources below are select sources that supported the development of this article. Additional sources are linked throughout the article above.
Consumer Reports, 2014. "How much arsenic is in your rice? Consumer Reports' new data and guidelines are important for everyone but especially for gluten avoiders." Consumer Reports. Published: November 2014
Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, 2023. "Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products" by Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.
EWG, 2022. "Arsenic Is In Rice - Should you worry?." Environmental Working Group.
FDA, 2016. "Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Risk Assessment Report." US FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. March 2016.
GAO, 2018. "Federal Efforts to Manage the Risk of Arsenic in Rice." U.S. Government Accountability Office. Published: Mar 16, 2018. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 2018.
Washington Post, 2021. Rosenbloom, Cara. "Arsenic in rice: What is and isn’t safe for adults and children." Washington Post. October 15, 2021.
WHO, 2022. "Arsenic." World Health Organization. 7 December 2022.
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