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What's the Advice for Arsenic in Rice?

12/11/2012 06:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

The evidence that rice is particularly efficient at absorbing arsenic from soil and irrigation water is not new information. Residues of this toxic and carcinogenic metal in rice have been measured for decades. The new data reported this past September by FDA and Consumer's Union are the most extensive to date but at this point we can still only speculate about the source (natural arsenic in soil and water vs. arsenical pesticides) and whether rice grown in the southern U.S. is really more contaminated than rice grown elsewhere. The data do suggest that basmati rice is typically lower than other forms and that brown rice contains more arsenic than white. Presoaking the rice in water that is then discarded may remove some of the arsenic, but you may also lose some nutrients this way. Clearly more data are needed to document sources and which types of rice are highest in arsenic and it sounds like FDA will be producing that data in 2013.

But given that people are not putting their chopsticks down while waiting for more data, the question really boils down to whether the current data suggest a major public health concern. The FDA sampled a variety of rice products and found 1-10 ug/serving across the range of brown, white, basmati, rice cereal and rice cakes. For an adult eating a few servings a week, this amount is well below what current drinking water standards allow and so it doesn't look like rice will raise alarm bells for the general public. But one needs to consider all sources of exposure and until the FDA review is out, moderation would be wise. Rice cake addicts, take notice.

The scenario that involves the greatest exposure is to babies whose first solid food is rice cereal. Iron-fortified rice cereal has been a staple of infant nutrition for generations because it is easy to digest and doesn't lead to food allergies. In contrast, wheat-based cereal is not recommended by pediatricians because it contains gluten which has the potential to cause allergy if exposure is so early in life. But there are other easily digestible grains with authorities now recognizing that barley and oatmeal are just fine as baby's first food. Given that rice contains substantial amounts of arsenic and these other grains don't, perhaps the best advice that can come from the arsenic in rice controversy so far is to start babies off on another type of cereal besides rice. Later on when baby's diet is more diversified then it would probably be fine to have some rice product mixed in. Of course, dietary choices at this sensitive stage of development should be made in consultation with the family pediatrician.

It's good to see arsenic in rice finally get the attention it deserves. The FDA will need to take a close look at babies and high-end consumers to determine whether the time has come to regulate the levels of arsenic in rice.

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