Here's a transcript of the NPR interview, for what it's worth. I'm pretty sure I got it all.
A recent consumer reports test of more than 60 brands of rice and rice products found varying levels of inorganic arsenic in most of the samples. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports, Joins us now to explain the findings and to tell us how we can reduce our exposure to arsenic in foods. Hello, welcome back to our show.Urvashi Rangan:
Thank you so much, Leonard.Leonard Lopate:
What is inorganic arsenic and how is it different from organic arsenic?Urvashi Rangan:
Yeah, inorganic arsenic is actually the most toxic form of arsenic. Arsenic comes in many different types of forms. The two families are inorganic and organic - and that shouldn't be confused with food production, these are chemistry terms. And even within each of those families there are various different types.
But, all of the types of inorganic arsenic are actually classified as known carcinogens to humans, and they're known to cause skin, lung and bladder cancer, and there's even a few more cancers that have been added to that, like kidney. With the organic arsenics there are, really it's a more broad scale in terms of toxicity. The arsenic that's found in fish is arsenobetaine, it's an organic arsenic, we're far less concerned with that. That's not what we're even here to talk about today. And then there are other forms of organic arsenic, including some we tested, that are classified as probable carcinogens. So there's a wide spectrum.
The arsenic we're focused on in this particular test project is the inorganic form. The one that's known to cause cancer.Leonard Lopate:
And how does it wind up in rice?Urvashi Rangan:
Yeah, there's lots of reasons, potentially, why arsenic can occur naturally in the environment and in waters. It's not that it's everywhere at the same level, there are certain regions that tend to be more elevated in arsenic just depending on the types of soil and sediment and water in that area. But once arsenic gets taken up into the plant and is in the inorganic form, it doesn't matter what form it was originally, it still takes on those toxic properties, whether it's from a natural source or not.
But what a lot of people may not know is that we actually do things in our agricultural practices that add arsenic into our food supply on an almost constant basis. One of those things is we have a number of arsenical drugs that are actually approved to be used in animal production. Arsenical drugs can be fed to chickens, turkeys, pigs on a daily basis. Used to pigment meat, it's fed to healthy animals to prevent disease a little like antibiotics are used on a daily basis. These are really unnecessary uses of arsenic. Organic doesn't allow for things like this, along with many of the animal welfare labels. So it's not a practice that needs to happen.
But what happens is that most of the stuff we feed these animals will pass through, and then we'll collect their manures and refertilize crops with them. In some cases we re-feed animals some of that manure. And so we are literally recycling the stuff into our agricultural system. We think those types of practices need to be stopped altogether.
And we also allow the use of certain pesticides that contain arsenic. We still allow cotton to be sprayed with that, as well as golf courses and green rights-of-ways on freeways. The EPA has started to phase out those uses, but the use for cotton will remain. We think, again, all of those uses of arsenicals in our environment need to stop, because those are the ways we can stop the deliberate adding of arsenic into our food supply. Leonard Lopate:
Rice is a staple in many cuisines, often coupled with chicken or fish. So, how much is too much?Urvashi Rangan:
It's a great question. And I think as we look at the levels of what we're seeing of how much inorganic arsenic is in just, say, one serving of these rice products, you're getting anywhere from 50% to 100% from what you might get from drinking a liter of water at the maximum daily limit of arsenic. So, even the drinking water standard for arsenic is not as stringent as we'd like it to be.
It's not as protective as we'd like it to be. So when you look at the levels in rice and put it in the context of that, these levels are definitely concerning. I think we know that governments around the world have been really concerned about the carcinogenicity of inorganic arsenic. That's why we have so many limits for water around the world. And that's exactly why we think food should be no exception to this rule. We ought to be setting standards for inorganic arsenic in food as well.Leonard Lopate:
What kinds of products did you test?Urvashi Rangan:
We looked at a number of different types of rices. We looked at regional differences, brown vs. white, we looked at some organics...Leonard Lopate:
Arborio and basmati?Urvashi Rangan:
We definitely looked at basmati. Not too much short grain, a few short grain rices, but, really we also focused on some of the major brands out there - Uncle Ben's, Carolina. And we also looked at some more minor brands that were produced in very specific regions that we think might be more problematic when it comes to arsenic levels.
And I think the silver lining is we found variable levels, and the good news in all of this is, depending on where you grow rice, depending on what variety of rice you grow, all the agricultural practices you use to mitigate the uptake of arsenic, you can actually affect how much arsenic is taken up by these rices. And so with standards in place we really think that can create incentives to drive down the amounts of arsenic we're seeing.
We also looked at a number of other products. We looked at infant rice cereal, we looked at whole rice cereal, rice cakes, rice pastas, rice beverages. And, in doing all of that, we found measurable levels of inorganic arsenic across the board. And as a result, we have certainly recommended limits to the government in terms of what they should set. But in the meantime, we've also offered advice to consumers on how they can kind of cut back on the various different products that they're eating to a level where we feel that consumers would be at a better level of protection.
So for cold cereals, for example, for children, we did crunch out these things for adults and children, we think kids shouldn't be eating more than a cup and a half of rice cereal a week, in terms of the cold cereal. And so that's quite a strict recommendation, but it's just another good way to diversify your grains. We know things like wheat and corn and oats have 5 to 17 times less arsenic than rice does. So it's another good reason to diversify your grains.
When it comes to rice beverages, like rice milk, our most stringent advice follows that that they have in the United Kingdom, which is that children under the age of five really shouldn't be drinking rice milk on a regular basis because of the concerns about the arsenic levels. Especially for bodies that are so small and, really, effectively getting a bigger dose per pound of body weight.
So that is the most strict recommendation. For people, the average person eating rice, we're saying keep it to about two quarter cup dry servings a week. Most Americans eat about two and a half servings of rice per week. But, these are ways we think that consumers can at least moderate their exposure to arsenic while the government gets on with looking at this, setting standards and hopefully taking care of the practices where we're introducing arsenic into our food supply.Leonard Lopate:
Well, you mentioned taking a moderate amount of rice, but if you are Chinese or Japanese or from other parts of Asia, or if you're Latin American, rice is going to be a part of everyday foods. Does it matter where the rice is grown? For example, the Japanese believe that their rice is the best rice. Are they likely to have less arsenic in it?Urvashi Rangan:
Well, that's a great question. We do know, even from our limited data, and really, our test was a market snapshot, but there is a lot of data out there on rice varieties. And rices from Asia tend to be lower in levels of arsenic than other rices produced in other regions, and including some in the United States. California, in our study, India and Thailand, as a group, are overall lower in total arsenic and inorganic arsenic levels compared to other regions of the United States.
It's hard to say for sure. I think there are new methods in testing arsenic and so it's hard to compare study to study to study. But, it does seem like there is quite a lot of variability in terms of varieties of rice, how much they take up, even from the FDA's own data, that they also put out with us last week from their independent studies, some of the rices that they tested actually had negligible levels of arsenic and some of those were from Asia.
So I think there is a lot to be learned in this. We have been learning a lot and it's really time to get to brass tacks now and be able to sort out which rices take up less arsenic than others.Leonard Lopate:
What about organic rice?Urvashi Rangan:
Organic rice, unfortunately, isn't any different it appears, and nor do we necessarily expect that. It was a little hard to tell from our study. The California rices we looked at were also organic, so it's hard to separate those variables. But that said, in this country, the same variables that would lead to arsenic uptake in regular rices still apply to organic rices. So until we start to deal with some of those other practices, I'm not even sure we expect to see differences fall across those lines, necessarily.Leonard Lopate:
Hasn't a bill been proposed in Congress to require the FDA to set a limit on arsenic in rice.Urvashi Rangan:
Yes. In fact, that bill followed our report last week, and it is calling for the FDA to set standards in rice and we're really pleased to see that move forward. I think it's also important to note that the Food and Drug Administration themselves came out with 200 data points on rice products that look very much like ours. The Illinois State Attorney General office also put out data on infant rice cereal that is, again, very comparable to what we found.
I think the good news in all of that is this is on the mind of our policy makers, it's something they're concerned about. They plan to finish up testing by the end of the year and get on with the risk assessment. So, we'll be in many conversations going forward with policy makers to help them get to setting these limits, which, you know, will really start to incentivize this marketplace to get these levels down.Leonard Lopate:
Are there ways to cook rice to remove or decrease the arsenic levels?Urvashi Rangan:
There are some interesting ways. Studies have shown that if you rinse rice very thoroughly, and that means really rinsing it, stirring the rice, dumping it off until it's clear. Also, cooking rice pasta style, with one cup of rice to, say, six cups of water and then decant off the water. There have been studies to show you can actually reduce the levels of arsenic, inorganic arsenic, by about 30%. It's a very ancient, artisanal way of cooking rice that I think many Asians may be familiar with. It's not a way we typically cook rice in this country where we literally just steam the water into the rice. So if you use more water, you rinse more, you cook with more, that can be a good way to reduce the amount of arsenic.
Here's a bio on Dr. Urvashi Rangan.http://www.consumersunion.org/about/pdf ... o_2009.pdf