Scary Food – Arsenic in Rice

In light of the last entry (“Simple Go-To Fried Rice“), I felt the need to write about a recent news story revealing that arsenic was found in over 200 rice and rice products sold at grocery stores in the U.S.  A study by Consumer Reports showed that rice produced in the U.S. had “worrisome” levels of arsenic, and the FDA followed suit with another study which showed similar results.  Arsenic, in inorganic form, is a “level one carcinogenic and linked to lung and bladder cancer.”

I normally would take any Consumer Reports study with a grain of… well, rice.  After all, they recommended a certain vacuum cleaner and washing machine that I ended up buying because of their glowing reviews, and they both kind of suck.  But since this involves the health of children, it’s not so easy to bypass this story with ambivalence.  After all, parents are encouraged to feed infants rice cereal as one of their first foods.  Baby & Toddler mum-mums are passed around the playground, and rice milk is given as a substitute to children who are allergic to dairy and soy.  And for those families in which rice is a staple in their diet, such as Asian families (like ours) and Latin American families (the rest of Tucson), these findings are very much a concern.

According to an article I read in the newspaper, there are some things you can do to limit the arsenic levels in your rice.  Some of them are totally impractical like cooking rice the way you cook pasta – in a ton of water which you then drain.  Yuck.  I mean, who wants to end up with porridge?  But for the more practical suggestions:

  1. Limit brown rice consumption.  Although brown rice is generally healthier than white rice (it has higher fiber content because the outer husk is still intact), it also has higher levels of arsenic.  This won’t be a hard one for me since I don’t like brown rice anyway, unless it’s cooked in chicken broth, butter, and lots of garlic.
  2. Try aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine.  These rices are imported so they don’t have the level of arsenic that American rices do.  By the way, have you tried Thai jasmine rice?  It is so fragrant and delicious.  I remember one time in Thailand, my colleague brought some Thai jasmine rice to the refugee camps for a special event.  The children just ate the rice plain and said it was so good compared to the rice they received in their handouts (broken, substandard rice).  It really is good enough to eat by itself.
  3. Wash your rice.  Supposedly washing the rice 4-6 times (filling up with water, swishing the rice around, draining the water, and filling it back up again) removes 25-30% of the arsenic.
  4. Check where your rice comes from.  California rice was found to have the least amount of arsenic, while southern states along the Bible belt (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri) had the highest amounts.  And like I said, rice imported from other countries has miniscule amounts of arsenic.

It seems like there’s a lot of stuff we’re eating that’s not so good for us, from genetically modified corn to factory-farmed meat to chemical-laden processed foods.  Even as we speak, there’s a recall on peanut butter sold at Trader Joe’s (due to salmonella), and earlier this year there was a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes.  Although avoiding every single scary food out there would be impossible, I think it’s important to listen to these reports and make changes that you are comfortable making.  In our household we eat rice about 3 times a week, so I’ll probably reduce it by one and replace it with another grain (barley, quinoa, buckwheat – there are lots of options).  And when we do eat rice, I’ll stick to Thai jasmine and the California short-grain that we’re used to eating.  But I’m not going to eliminate rice from our diet altogether.   That would just be too hard for us.  Fried rice, anyone?