Arsenic in Rice: How Concerned Should You Be? | Chris Kresser
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Arsenic in Rice: How Concerned Should You Be?

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If you knew there was arsenic in your food, would you eat it? More importantly, would you serve it to your children?

Recently, Consumer Reports Magazine released their analysis of arsenic levels in rice products, and the results were concerning. Popular rice products including white rice, brown rice, organic rice baby cereal, and rice breakfast cereals, were all found to contain arsenic, a potent carcinogen that can also be harmful to a child’s developing brain.

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.

The study not only found a significant amount of arsenic in many rice products on the market, but also that arsenic levels in the blood directly increase with greater rice consumption.(1) Several products tested had more arsenic in each serving than the 5 parts per billion (ppb) limit for adults set by the EPA as safe. (2)

What’s worse, many of these arsenic-containing rice products are marketed to children and infants as “health foods”, and children are far more susceptible to the dangerous impacts of arsenic exposure. (345) Research suggests that high levels of arsenic exposure during childhood are associated with neurobehavioral problems as well as cancer and lung disease later in life. (6) This means parents must be especially careful to avoid serving their children food with significant levels of arsenic.

While many of my readers follow a strict Paleo diet and couldn’t care less about arsenic in rice, there are many more who are more liberal in their diet and consume white rice as a “safe” starch. In fact, rice is often recommended by well-educated bloggers such as Paul Jaminet as a component of a perfectly healthy and enjoyable diet. I personally eat white rice on occasion and feel it is a safe starch for those who tolerate it. But now that there is a new issue with rice consumption, one that has nothing to do with carbohydrates, does that mean we should avoid it entirely?

White rice can be a “safe” starch

I don’t think it’s necessary to completely eliminate rice from the diet. The EPA’s 5 ppb per day limit on arsenic is probably what we should shoot for in our diets, in light of current evidence.

Many of the white rice products tested had fairly low levels of arsenic, and in the context of a few servings a week for an adult, it’s probably not an issue. As for very young children and infants, I don’t recommend serving them rice products in general, so they shouldn’t be exposed to arsenic from rice anyway. Pregnant women may want to be cautious about their rice intake, and minimize their exposure to arsenic to protect their developing fetus; finding another safe starch to replace rice during pregnancy would be wise.

So if you choose to purchase white rice, buy a brand made in California like Lundberg; their California White Basmati Rice has only 1.3 to 1.6 ppb arsenic per serving (1/4 cup uncooked), well below the safe limit. In addition, rinsing the rice before cooking and boiling it in a high water-to-rice ratio can help reduce the arsenic content significantly. (7) So if you want to keep white rice as a part of your diet, I recommend looking for a safe brand like Lundberg and rinsing the rice thoroughly before cooking in a large quantity of water; this should be adequate to make rice a safe food to eat in moderation.

Brown rice: Not a health food!

Brown rice, on the other hand, has significantly more arsenic than white rice and should be avoided or consumed rarely. Some of the brown rice brands tested contained at least 50% more than the safe limit per serving, and a few even had nearly double the safe limit. (PDF with complete details of test results) Note that some of the worst offenders for arsenic are made from brown rice: processed rice products like brown rice syrup, brown rice pasta, rice cakes and brown rice crisps. These processed products are commonly consumed by those following a “healthy” whole grain rich or gluten-free diet, but they clearly pose a significant risk of arsenic overexposure, especially if a person eats more than one serving per day. Obviously, brown rice is not a food that should be a dietary staple, or even eaten on a regular basis.

#Arsenic: another reason to prefer white rice over brown? Tweet This

Aside from having a higher arsenic content, there are other reasons to avoid brown rice: it’s harder to digest and nutrient absorption is likely inferior to white rice because of phytates in the rice bran. (8) Despite a higher nutrient content of brown rice compared to white rice, the anti-nutrients present in brown rice reduce the bioavailability of any vitamins and minerals present. (9) Plus, brown rice also reduces dietary protein and fat digestibility compared to white rice. (10)

In short, brown rice is not a health food for a variety of reasons, and a higher arsenic content is simply another reason to avoid eating it.

No food is completely safe or without some level of contamination risk: vegetables make up 24 percent of our arsenic exposure and tap water can legally contain 10 ppb arsenic per liter (some systems even exceed the legal limit.) (11) So while rice may contribute an unsafe level of arsenic, it’s certainly not the only source in our diet, and we need to be cautious about demonizing an entire class of food based on a soundbite from a news story. While I don’t think rice is a necessary component of a healthy diet, I do think it can be incorporated safely as a source of starch: just be sure to pay attention to the brand you’re buying, as well as your method of preparation.

309 Comments

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  1. Hi
    I use to eat minimal amounts of grains but always followed the weston price methods of soaking. Do youthink these methods work to make the grains more digestible and breakdown the phytic acid?
    I currently am on day five of no grains of starches and am blown away how light and amazing i feel!

    Thanks

  2. Some dishes we make at home can’t be made well without rice (stuffed peppers, pilaf), and also we use rice flower when “breading” is needed. So we won’t drop it completely. We don’t eat it every day through.

  3. Preference for brown rice over white rice seems to be an artifact from conventional understanding of cereal grain consumption: that there are more nutrients in whole form versus refined. Ironically, the anti-nutrients in bran are more impactful than its beneficial nutrients. I understand everyone’s preference for texture is unique, but given it’s relative scarcity in prepared foods, brown rice seems like something that’s convenient to forego.

    • According to the Consumer Reports analysis, that brand has between 2.7-3.0 ppb per 1/4 cup of uncooked white rice. If you limit daily consumption to that level, and you’re not getting a lot of arsenic from other sources, that should be fine.

  4. What about “organic” GF pasta made with organic brown rice flour. We offer this on occasion to our three young boys for emergency quick meals when short on time. We use the Jovial brand.

  5. I eat white rice a lot, and eat brown rice on occasion. I also eat other starches/grains, but LOVE well made, high quality rice (like Lundberg or other organic brands.) When I eat brown rice, I soak it overnight prior to cooking. This is yet another example of “know your food”, where it comes from, how it was grown, etc. I wonder how long it will take for those fields to have the excess arsenic leeched from it into our food, before those fields are back to pre-pesticide levels? Probably a very long time.

  6. Do you have any idea whether the arsenic “survives” when the rice is broken down and the protein is extracted? I use a product (by Metagenics) that contains rice protein and wonder whether the same precautions apply.

    • I don’t know the answer to that question. When in doubt, I think caution is probably warranted.

  7. What other produce is grown in wet type environments that could also have arsenic problems? A quick google showed peas, beans, watercress.

    I too have been using the germinated brown rice but see the arsenic correlation with ungerminated conventional brown rice on the report. I would expect that cooking germinated brown rice using the recommended excess water, and then draining all that off, would also result in little nutritive value for the germinated brown rice, so what’s the point of ingesting it?!!

    I was pleased to see the Lundberg’s taking a proactive stance and aiding the investigations “because it’s the right thing to do”.

  8. The tests reported at the Lundberg web site show comparable arsenic levels to other US-grown rice, they could not repeat the Consumer Reports results. So the low levels found by CR are not typical, and we’ve stopped eating Lundberg.

    The best rice we’ve found is from Lotus Foods, http://www.lotusfoods.com/, which is all imported from areas with very low arsenic. Also, the rice they buy is grown with low water levels, which also helps reduce arsenic uptake. Their test show extremely low arsenic levels, on the order of 0.15mg/kg for brown rice.

    • Tim:

      According to this link:
      http://www.lotusfoods.com/Faq.aspx

      Total arsenic content average for Lotus rice is .008 mg per 1/4 cup serving. They have not tested for inorganic arsenic content, but it would presumably be lower (some percentage of total).

      For comparison, the inorganic arsenic content of Whole Foods White Basmati is .0035 mg.

      Assuming the inorganic arsenic content is about half of the total for Lotus Foods, seems to me it’s roughly the same as the Whole Foods White Basmati.

      According to this link on Lundberg’s site, the average content of inorganic arsenic in their products (including both brown and white) is 95 ppb. The Consumer Reports article found an average of 64-76 ppb for Lundberg white rice, which is about what you’d expect if the average (including both brown and white) was 95. This corresponds to an inorganic arsenic content of .0013 to .0016, which would be even lower than the Whole Foods White Basmati and presumably the Lotus Foods rice.

      Do you have other information that contradicts this?

      • Hi Chris

        In your article you say the EPA arsenic safe limit is 5 ppb. Most of the rices you have linked to in the consumer report (including the Lundberg variety) are 50-150 ppb. How can they ever be safe, or am I missing something?

        • The metric is that a liter of water with 5 ppb of arsenic exposes you to 5 mcg of inorganic arsenic. That’s the number you want to be concerned with, in the right-hand column. Any rice that exceeds the 5 mcg number would exceed the equivalent of drinking one liter of water with 5 ppb arsenic.

  9. My mother-in-law just got diagnosed with increased levels of arsenic in her blood. She is Cuban and a big rice-eater. I actually didn’t quite believe her until I started reading the reports. She also has weak kidney function which (I’m sure) contributes to build-up of toxins in general. If you HAVE been exposed to arsenic, what can you do?
    Nina

  10. Any insight as to the differentiation between organic and inorganic forms of arsenic in rice (naturally occurring vs. industrial byproduct). From what I have read on chelation of organic vs. inorganic minerals, this is an important differentiation to note. Also, what about organic arsenic at very low doses being a necessary trace mineral? The consumer report didn’t seem to mention either of these points, but since plain rice had the lowest levels and processed rice products had the higher levels, I have a hunch that there is an inherent amount of organic arsenic in rice but processing adds in additional and undesirable inorganic forms.

  11. Now, we generally only have white rice with our sushi and I don’t think a bit of arsenic will keep me from eating sushi! I have never liked the taste of brown rice enough to make it. I think I had a bag in the pantry for a few years before I just accepted that, when given the choice, I would always choose white so I finally threw it out. Now I don’t even think we have rice in the pantry at all.

  12. I heard a report that rice is being grown in the U.S. where cotton was previously grown and hence the soil is heavily contaminated with toxins, including arsenic.

  13. Hi Chris,
    I have been taking a tablespoon of stabilized rice bran daily since it is a super food. I read recently that the benefits of staiblized rice bran outweighed the negative concerns. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of stabilized rice bran. Is a tablespoon of this a day worse than eating a bowl of brown rice?
    Really appreciate your writing on many topics!!!!

    • Since the toxins, including arsenic, are concentrated in the bran, I wouldn’t do it. Why are you taking it? I’m sure whatever effect you’re looking for can be obtained from another food or supplement.

      • Chris can u tell me what is the cause of me having a geographic tongue all my life? Thanks brother ur awesome!

      • Chris can u tell me what is causing me to have a geographic tongue all my life? Thanks brother ur awesome!

      • I already commented in this article, but this is hugely important to me because I have used rice bran as a super food vitamin source, taking it for B1, B3, B6. I do not want to take supplements, whole foods only. Is there ANY other way I can obtain at least 100% of those B vitamins daily from whole foods without eating a giant steak every day? I would appreciate a reply so much.

  14. re: white rice and children

    we just started feeding lundberg white rice to our three year old – in rotation – because he’s sensitive to nightshades and sweet potatoes….; we’ve been following the Perfect Health recommendations for safe starches. Aside from the arsenic, do you not recommend white rice for young children because of potential gut issues? lack of nutritional value?

    • Mostly because there are other more nutrient-dense starch choices, and my concern is that some kids have a tendency to get pretty addicted to stuff like white rice. But I don’t think it’s a problem if the overall diet is very nutrient-dense and white rice is limited to a few servings a week.

      • We eat ALOT of white rice at least 2-3 times a week. I buy the organic basmati rice from Trader Joes, I’ve heard the basmati rice is safer is that true? While I don’t “soak” it I do always rinse it several times before cooking and I doubt the water to rice ratio (1cup rice 2cup water) bring it to a boil and then simmer. I have three young children who eat it and I’m nursing one more…..do I need to make a change?

  15. I come from a background where rice is a staple in the dishes we make. That being said I probably only eat it 2-3 times a month and prepare it by soaking over night in salted water and then rinsing thoroughly before cooking, which is how we traditionally prepare it.

    Bit worried about your reference to brown rice syrup as I use this sometimes in baking or as a substitute to honey. When I quit sugar over 6 months ago I started using it since it is fructose free and honey is high in fructose. So now I’m wondering if using it has been a problem!

    • Based on the research I reviewed, I wouldn’t use brown rice syrup as a sweetener unless you’re using it very rarely. Is there a specific reason you’re trying to avoid fructose?

      • Hi Chris, as I mentioned in my post above I quit sugar a while ago based on an 8 week program which focused mainly on giving up fructose. Why? Because of the evidence that has been brought to light out there such as the talk Dr Lustig gives on the dangers of fructose, plus the book ‘Sweet Poison’ by Australian author David Gillespie and a few other studies I’ve seen.

        I realise that not all fructose is created equally (i.e. in fruit for e.g.) but these studies show that too much can be harmful.

        Not sure what your thoughts are on this matter. I’ve stopped using honey a long time ago but this has made me think.

        • I don’t agree that there’s any evidence suggesting that naturally occurring fructose in moderate amounts is harmful. Excess fructose from HFCS and fructose-sweetened beverages is harmful, especially in the context of metabolic problems. But that is not a reason to avoid small amounts of honey as a sweetener.

          • How much is a small amount? Luckily for me I don’t bake very often so it’s not too much of a problem.

            Also would you recommend raw honey?

            • A teaspoon or two a day if you don’t have blood sugar issues (might even be fine if you do). Yes, raw honey is better.

                • Tapioca syrup tastes great and is technically a “safe starch” so you can count it towards your glucose needs. Obviously you wouldn’t want to use it like crazy as it doesn’t have much for nutrients but I often use it for 100 calories or “safe starch” in my day.

            • Dr. Mercola had interesting articles on fructose and to not go above 25 grams per day. Moderate amounts should be ok and this should really apply to those that have other health issues, etc.

          • I was so happy to find your articles on health. Then, I realized that you and Dr. Mercola, another favorite, do not agree on fructose and MANY other things, so now I am disappointed. Do not tell me just to do what agrees with me. That is too slow, complicated, confusing in a busy life. A life without everything that grows naturally; fruits, whole grains, nuts….seems unnatural. And soaking so many things, esp. nuts. That frustrates me. I can accept a lot about the food industry, big pharma, but I feel my main concern is to eat less. Probably your book would help.But computer searching, three newspapers, working out, the office, house chores are my daily basics. Balancing insulin shots and diet for over fifty yrs. is a job. Did I have a leaky gut at age 8 when Type I diabetes struck? I don’t think I could undo all my life. I do eat 97% organic, but that obviously isn’t enough. I want to get back to my uninformed happy as opposed to informed worried. I think you can empathize. ES

            • Emily, I agree with you 100 %(dare I say 1000%). “He says eat this, she saids do not touch and someone else says maybe” As in most of life-do everything in moderation. It is very difficult for me to believe white rice has much if any nutritional value. It is my understanding that most grains, etc. also have an enzyme, which negates much of the anti-nutrients when grains are soaked and even more when grain is sprouted! It is really hard to know who to believe!!

          • To discover the dangers of fructose, see Dr Lustig’s research and talks. There is an excellent YouTube talk by him, “Sugar – The Bitter Truth”. Fructose is fine when consumed as part of fruit, but in moderation, since the fibre in the fruit helps the body cope with it. But squeezed fruit juice isn’t good, it’s just a concentrated source of fructose, which is rapidly coming to be regarded as a toxin, related to all sorts of conditions, including cancer and heart conditions. As I understand it, naturally occurring fructose, consumed in it’s natural state is OK. So raw honey should be fine also. But everything in moderation.

  16. I still eat white rice and noodles made from it. It doesn’t bother my gut like other grains. I always combine it with a lot of fat.. such as beef marrow/lamb soup with some rice noodles added in.. or rice as a small side with fatty meat/veggies. I find that I need SOME starch.. but mostly get it from sweet potatoes or the occasional fruit/ freshly squeezed grapefruit.

  17. Michelle: I don’t think it’s a safe assumption to assume that soaking removes the arsenic. It might, but then again it might not. I haven’t seen any data on that either way. Rinsing the rice thoroughly and cooking it in a large volume of water (i.e. a 6-to-1 ratio) does reduce the arsenic content by about 35%.

    • hi chris,
      what do you mean by 6:1 ratio should that water be dumped off after a length of time or absorbed? can you tell me exactly how you prepare yours?

  18. I’m on a paleo-type diet, so grains of any sort aren’t an appreciable part of my diet. Even so, I have family members that do still consume a good amount of grains, including rice. My question is– where is this arsenic coming from? Is it due to fertilizers or pesticides? Is it a natural consequence of certain regions’ soils? Is it a manufacturing side effect? That would be useful to know.

    • Mostly pesticides used for other crops. The reason the levels of arsenic from rice grown in southern U.S. states are higher than rice grown in CA or Asia is that those states used a lot of arsenic-containing pesticides to control boll weevils, and the arsenic is still in the soils.

      • I grew up in the cotton-growing South, and know something of arsenic-based pesticides. From the 1930s to 1960s, arsenic was used to control boll weevils. Then, in the early 1960s, arsenic-based defoliants became very popular and likely accounts for the historic residual accumulations. Arsenic was banned as a defoliant by EPA in the early 1990s. Presently, arsenic (MSMA & DSMA) is used commonly on cotton, golf courses, right-of-ways, lawns, sod farms, etc. to control weeds.

      • hi Chris- ive heard Bob’s Red Mill claim their stabilized brown rice bran contains no arsenic- because it is grown in California- is this true – or will it still contain lesser but still significant levels. i hope you have an authoritative reply to this to help me choose whether to buy again that product.

      • The arsenic is coming from chicken poop from large factory chicken farms, according to Natural News. These wastes are released into the water and floods cause the water to be deposited on the rice beds. Almost all rice the world over is contaminated, except Indonesia, including most of California. Even organic rice is exposed.

      • Selenium displaces arsenic, so I take 200 to 400 mcg of selenium a day, regardless of rice intake. Most people are deficient in Se anyway, and the soils are depleted in the US except in the plains areas. Another way of getting dietary selenium is to eat high Se lentils. Here is the study from the NIH and Calgary U. on the subject.
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23800687
        Of course, another prudent action is to not to shower or drink any water from a municipal source (also to avoid fluoride as well).

    • I have heard it is coming from the water that they grow the rice in. Chicken is another big source of arsenic! Many articles on this if you Google it. Unless you buy organic your in trouble. My daughter had a high arsenic level so we switched to quinoa instead of rice and organic chicken.

      • Good idea to go as fresh and clean as possible, imo. Grass finished – organic – beef, bison, chicken and wild caught salmon — GOOD 🙂
        I also purchase organic brown rice products but will NOW look to organic white rice as suggested and or others, like quinoa. Just in case. 🙂

  19. Organic Brown rice is a staple of my diet. I am very physically active and need the carbs. Plus I prepare it traditionally: I soak the rice in water with a splash of kombucha till the rice sprouts, about 24 hrs. This removes most of the phytates and makes it more digestible. I have been assuming the soaking would also remove most of the arsenic? I change the water about every 8 hrs.

    I dislike white rice because it has no flavor and I feel like it raises my blood sugar.

      • Michael,

        Generally, soaking even in water or salt water is beneficial, especially for sprouting. You can use kefir or whey from kefir or yogurt, and I think water kefir should be fine as well. It’s the bacteria in these probiotics that “pre-digests” the food and releases some of the problematic anti-nutrients. Even just rinsing in water every few hours can induce sprouting.

    • According to this article, the phytates in brown rice bind with the arsenic and form a complex that is not absorbed into the bloodstream, but passed through the colon, meaning the phytates make the arsenic totally benign once conjugated. This article also shows that the amount of arsenic in rice is of little concern at all based on some simple math. Of course it is still wise to get the cleanest rice available – that is, not grown in arsenic-laden soil due to pollution. I think the ultimate way to deal with this dilemma is to get a couple of hair tissue mineral analyses done over time to see what your arsenic levels are based on you rice intake. Just be sure the lab you use processes the sample correctly (many don’t, giving skewed results)
      http://www.scribd.com/doc/35306361/Stabilized-Rice-Bran-and-the-Arsenic-Myth#scribd