When both Consumer Reports and the FDA issued reports recently about the high levels of arsenic in rice — notably brown rice — many moms, in the Whole-Foods-Buying-Whole-Grain-Loving crowd I tend to hang out with, freaked out.
An example from Brookline:
I was freaked out because the source of the warning seemed so trustworthy – FDA and Consumer Reports. I usually ignore these things but rice seems like such a basic. We eat a fair amount of rice (mostly brown) because we’re trying to be healthy and eat whole grains and not too much pasta, etc. etc…I love quinoa but my daughter doesn’t so I don’t make that as often. I also was freaked out because a Whole Foods brand was on there. I don’t buy that particular brand, but still…
Another mother from New York wrote:
I was upset — and also irritated– by the news. But mostly, I am anxious. We already have a lot of cancer in our family. I already spend so much time planning and preparing healthy alternatives to meet the diverse needs of my children (who favor certain foods) and my husband (who has tendencies toward reflux and high cholesterol and is a vegetarian) and myself (allergies and kosher).
We eat brown rice about twice a week for dinner…But my kids also enjoy rice crackers (brown and white) as well as rice cakes for “healthy” snacks. We also eat “yellow” rice and beans for breakfast almost every weekend morning at our favorite Cuban brunch spot…and as my husband is a vegetarian, we tend to eat out (or order in) from Asian restaurants about once a week (more helpings of brown rice and white rice as well as rice noodles). Altogether, that’s easily five helpings, not counting things like the rice-brownie treats that were handed out at the Maker Faire festival to my eager (innocent) children last weekend.
For background: rice is particularly vulnerable to this problem. Here’s why, according to Consumer Reports:
Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.
And this doesn’t appear to be the case of just a tiny dash of toxin you can blithely ignore, given the reports. Inorganic arsenic (the type we are talking about here) is a known carcinogen. Again, Consumer Reports:
Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.
So what’s an anxious mom to do? Are we doomed to quinoa? I turned to the Center For Science In the Public Interest and spoke with Caroline Smith DeWaal, the group’s director of food safety, and asked how consumers should react to the “worrisome” reports.
She said there are a number of steps consumers can take to reduce their exposure to arsenic even if they eat a lot of rice and rice products. Here, condensed and edited, are her top five suggestions:
1. Pay Attention To Where It’s Grown
“Rice grown in the Southeastern U.S. had the highest amount of arsenic, according to Consumer Reports, which makes sense given that this is the land where cotton was grown and arsenic was used as a pesticide for decades to combat the boll weevil. Continue reading