For 3.5 billion people around the globe, rice supplies 20% of their total daily calories. Since consumed in such a significant quantity, we want to know that the rice we take in is healthy.
Recently multiple studies have been published in medical journals about a potential problem with rice—that it has a much higher arsenic content than other foods. This may sound alarming, but it is still not known if eating rice every day exposes us to enough arsenic that is really damaging for our health.
What is arsenic?
One of the heavy metals found naturally in our environment. Like others (mercury, lead, and cadmium), arsenic is found in water, soil, and enters our food as well. We cannot escape them completely; they are everywhere, but we should minimize our exposure.
Why is arsenic found in rice?
Rice has the highest concentration of arsenic of any food because it is grown in flooded paddy fields. Porous rice grains absorb lots of this heavy metal found in the water that floods the paddies.
What harm can arsenic do?
Taken in a large dose at once, it causes vomiting, low blood pressure, and even death. But smaller amounts over years may contribute to atherosclerosis; neurologic problems; and lung, skin, and bladder cancer. Children who eat too much can have developmental problems, and in pregnant woman could lead to birth defects.
But it is not known how much arsenic is too much, and will cause these problems. Our bodies flush out toxins such as heavy metals through our urine, but still, minimizing exposure is wise.
What about children eating rice cereal?
This is the main concern—the biggest problem may be in children under 5 years who eat rice cereal and crackers daily. With smaller body weights, and developing organs, developmental problems could arise if a significant part of their diet is rice-based.
Best if young children are breast fed, and when breast feeding stops, that their diets not consist solely of rice products. It is good to vary the grains with fortified oats, barley, or multi-grains, all of which have arsenic levels 10 to 20 times lower than rice.
Should adults cut down on rice?
Adults do not need to avoid rice, because there are ways to prepare rice that remove most of the arsenic.
How can we prepare healthier rice?
The best way is to cook the rice using much more water than normal. Cook it like you do pasta, with 6 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice, and 40 to 60% of the arsenic will leave the grains and go into the water during cooking. Drain the excess water when done; do not cook it till all the water evaporates.
Another possible measure—although some, including the Food and Drug Administration (USA)—say is not effective, is to rinse the rice before cooking, or let it soak overnight in lots of water. This however also strips off more nutrients (thiamin, iron, folate, and niacin), while not removing so much arsenic.
Does organic rice have less arsenic?
Brown rice vs. white rice
While brown rice has more nutrients and is less likely to contribute to diabetes, brown rice has more arsenic than white rice. When brown rice become white rice, the outer husk—which contains much of the arsenic—is removed, but also much of the nutrients.
So what should I do?
For children, see above. For adults, don’t eat brown rice every day, and cook your rice in lots of water. Jasmine and basmati rice have much less arsenic, and on some days eat other grains such as quinoa, millet, polenta, or amaranth, which have little or no arsenic. The best thing to vary your diet, including grains.
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