Updated December 31, 2014
This article appeared in the December 2014 Newsletter.
The “king of poisons,” arsenic, is found in rice. Articles about this connection have distressed health-conscious consumers who recognize the nutritional value of this inexpensive, high-energy, health-promoting staple. The best examples are from Consumer Reports magazine in November 2012, and Nature magazine in October 2014 that have encouraged people to stop eating rice, or at least to switch to white rice.
Exposure to arsenic, the “poison of kings,” (notorious for killing royalty, like Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821), should be minimized as much as possible. In reality, this basic element is unavoidable because it is naturally distributed throughout the soils and waters of our planet. Industries, especially those in mining and coal burning, and the uses in animal feed, pesticides, and wood preservatives, have made matters much worse by polluting our entire environment. Efforts to reduce significant exposure are crucial, but giving up rice should not be one of them.
In your pursuit of less arsenic in your rice, it’s helpful to know that rice purchased from California growers has about half the arsenic as rice produced in Louisiana. This is because arsenic-based insecticides, before being banned in 1988, were extensively used to kill boll weevils on cotton crops grown in the southeastern US (Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas). Many of these same lands have been turned into rice fields.
There are similar scenarios of contamination by modern-day farming which have polluted apples, mushrooms, and many other crops. For example, another Consumer Reports magazine article, from January 2012, revealed high levels of arsenic in fruit juice. Yet, despite arsenic’s known presence in these other foods, rice has become the focus of the media’s attention, with the ineffective solutions to the problem being “eat white rice” or eat no rice at all.
Arsenic is stored in greater amounts in the rice bran, therefore, avoiding brown rice has been recommended as a means to reduce arsenic intake. However, this outer coat also contains essential dietary fiber and many vital nutrients that are lost in the milling process (when manufacturing white rice). For overall health, white rice is less nutritious than whole-grain rice.
The recommendation to avoid rice fits well into a low-carbohydrate diet plan (like Atkins) but makes following a gluten-free diet even harder (since many gluten-free eaters rely on rice). Fortunately, people on the McDougall Diet who are worried about arsenic in rice can simply choose to eat other starches instead, such as barley, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and wheat products.
Rice may have higher concentrations of arsenic than other starchy grains, legumes, and root vegetables because rice plants use large quantities of water, grown in flooded fields, and rice efficiently pulls arsenic out of the water and soil.
However, all foods contain arsenic. Consumer Reports magazine noted “rice contributes 17 percent of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, which would put it in third place, behind fruits and fruit juices at 18 percent, and vegetables at 24 percent.” Still, rice has become the “must avoid” food.
The October 2014 issue of Nature magazine emphasized the hazards of arsenic, stating, “The situation is especially dire in Bangladesh, where rice is the national staple and the water is naturally high in arsenic. Here as many as 100 million people suffer from acute arsenic poisoning from multiple sources.” The reader may interpret this to mean rice, the staple food for people in this part of the world, is the culprit. The truth is that drinking water from shallow wells, not rice, is the primary source of the arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.
Unregulated private wells worldwide, including in the US, are often found to deliver toxic doses of arsenic to residents. One of the most important steps people can take to avoid chronic arsenic poisoning is to verify the quality of their drinking water. Laboratory testing can do this. Also consumers should consider using a water filter or distiller to purify their water supply
Fear of eating rice will cause many people to pass on this staple food in favor of eating the meat, poultry, or fish on their plate. This would be an unwise choice, because these foods are laden with far greater health hazards. About 90% of the arsenic in US diets comes from seafood. Although the arsenic in seafood is found as an organic compound, & which is less toxic, this food source is worrisome. Seafood is also the origin of most of the methyl mercury, a well-recognized neurotoxin, which people consume. Furthermore, choosing animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, and dairy) to eat rather than plants immensely increases the consumption of other poisons that are concentrated in the food chain, including pesticides and solvents.
Even more important than chemical contaminations is that these animal-derived foods deliver an overabundance of calories, cholesterol, protein, and fat to the consumer. The end result of reducing rice consumption may be worse health, not better, for individuals, as well as populations at large.
Rice is the most important grain for human nutrition, providing more than one-fifth of the calories to people worldwide. The effects of eating less rice are already apparent and tragic. Over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed by people living in Far East. However, over the past 35 years, as the wealth of people in this part of the world has increased, the consumption of rice per capita has decreased, and the consumption of meat and dairy foods has more than doubled. During this time period, the health of people in Asia has deteriorated, with increases in obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes rising to epidemic proportions.
Access to clean food is a basic human need and right. While international efforts to reduce pollution are ongoing, individuals and policymakers must not be distracted from the major causes of food poisoning, animal foods and vegetable oils. Our tunnel vision needs to be broadened, from headline-grabbing articles about “arsenic in your food” to solving the growing problems of over-nutrition in the modern world.