The Consumer Reports article, “Arsenic in your food” sparked a lot of panic and worry among U.S. consumers about the arsenic quantity in our food. Arsenic is a metalloid that occurs in two different forms: inorganic and organic. Both forms of arsenic are referred to collectively as “total arsenic” and can be found in various sources including: water, food, soil, and air. Inorganic forms of arsenic (arsenate and aresenite) are known carcinogens and are toxic to the body.
How is Arsenic in Rice?
Rice plants normally take up silicon, another metalloid, from the soil to help strengthen their stems and husks. The problem is the silicon and arsenic chemical structure look very similar. Therefore, in growing conditions that have higher amounts of arsenic in the soil and water, rice plants mistakenly take up arsenic instead of silicon from the surrounding environment.
Five Trends Shown by Consumer Reports
- White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas had higher levels of total arsenic compared to other rice samples
- Brown rice contains higher levels of total arsenic compared to white rice samples
- Arsenic levels are 44% higher in consumers that eat rice compared to those that do not
- It is possible to limit your exposure to arsenic in food
- Initial data is being used to encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set limits for arsenic in our food
What The FDA Recommends
On September 19, 2012 the FDA released preliminary findings analyzing the quantity of both organic and inorganic arsenic in 200 samples of rice and rice products. These findings can be found here: Arsenic in Rice: Summary Analytical Results from Rice/Rice Product Sampling – September 2012. The FDA’s preliminary data appears to be similar to findings released by Consumer Reports. The FDA is continuing to collect and analyze data of 1,000 plus rice and rice-containing products in order to do a thorough analysis before setting limits or future regulations.
Currently, the FDA’s is taking the stance that, “we believe it would be premature for the FDA to recommend modifying diets because of arsenic levels until a more thorough analysis is completed. With that said, it is important for consumers to continue eating a balanced diet including a wide variety of grains, not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.“ Therefore, the FDA is not recommending that consumers change their intake of rice and rice products due to available data and scientific literature.
Actions Initiated by Reports
Three members of Congress including: Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) have proposed the “R.I.C.E Act” (Reducing food-based Inorganic and organic Compounds Exposure Act). This act would require the FDA to set maximum limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in rice containing food sources.
Take Away Message
The average healthy American consuming a diet that consists of a variety of grains doesn’t need to stress about arsenic in rice. However, for the populations that are in a more vulnerable stage of life or have a higher consumption of rice due to dietary preferences/needs like infants, pregnant women, vegans/vegetarians, or individuals that have Celiac disease varying their consumption of whole grains may be beneficial. The truth is we don’t currently know what amount of organic and inorganic arsenic is even absorbed into our bodies from specific foods made from rice nor do we know enough about long-term exposure to low levels of arsenic to set limits. It is important to note that eating a diet containing a wide variety of whole grains is important regardless, so please don’t panic until more research is done. Chances are there have been high concentrations of total arsenic in our food sources for centuries upon centuries, we have just only now begun to properly detect it in our food.
Cleland B, et al. Arsenic Exposure within the Korean Community (United States) Based on Dietary Behavior and Arsenic Levels in Hair, Urine, Air, and Water. Environ Health Perspect. 2009; 117(4): 632–638.