Green Matters | Side of Arsenic with Rice

February 24, 2012

As parents, we do what we can to provide the best for our children.  We buy organic foods;  we read labels, and avoid foods that contain artificial coloring, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils or essentially anything that you can't pronounce.   We try hard to make healthier choices so when studies like the one that came out last week about about finding arsenic in organic baby formula and cereal bars are published, we get thrown for a loop.

This study was particularly concerning because the arsenic found was linked to organic brown rice syrup and rice products such as rice flour, rice grain, or rice flakes.  These ingredients are ubiquitous in foods that are considered "healthy".  Foods that opt for organic brown rice syrup in lieu of high fructose corn syrup and rice flour, rice flakes instead of wheat for those following a gluten-free diet.

How is arsenic getting into these foods?  According to Environmental Health Perspective, the arsenic can be traced back to the soil where rice is grown.  Much of the rice grown in the US are in fields where cotton once grew and where arsenic-based pesticides were allowed to control boll weevils.  the pesticides seeped into the soil and residues of the arsenic can still be found in the soil today.  Rice plants are more efficient in absorbing the arsenic from the soil rather than other grains.  Brown rice tends to have a higher concentration of arsenic than white.  That's not surprising, since brown rice only removes the outer whereas; white undergoes additional processing to remove the rest of the husk and germ.  However, the level of arsenic varies depending on which region it is grown.  In a 2007 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, Andrew Meharg states that rice grown in south central region (Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, and Florida) had 1.78 times more arsenic than rice grown in California.

Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in small concentrations.  So do we really need to be worried?  FDA defines the safe levels of arsenic in water (10 parts per billion) and juice (23 parts per billion) but they have yet to define the levels considered safe for rice and rice products.  The levels found in the formula were 6 times the acceptable levels in water and the cereal bars were 60 times higher.  There is still a lot of research that is required and until all of this is sorted out, there are things we can do to ensure the health of our children: 

  • switch from formulas that continue to use organic brown rice syrup as a main ingredient
  • avoid cereal bars that lists rice products in its first 5 ingredients
  • do not let rice be the primary source of nutrition for your babies
  • purchase rice grown in California
  • always give rice an extra rinse or two or even let it soak up to 1/2 to 1 hour in cold water and drain prior to cooking
  • cook rice with extra water (6 parts water to 1 part rice) to lower the arsenic levels
  • mix up your rice grains - no need to switch from brown rice since it has so many nutritional benefits, but add other rice such as basmati from India or jasmine rice from Thailand since both contain the lowest levels of arsenic

These studies really bring to light two key things for me - 1) safety levels are required in all food and beverages - both conventional and organic and 2) as a parent, you need to scrutinize all food labels and not just assume buying organic means you are making the best choice.

For additional reading on this study, check out Healthy Child Healthy World, Safbaby, and The Soft Landing

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