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Arsenic in rice update: it's about chicken and pork too

Consumer Reports updated its blockbuster report on arsenic in rice recently, which is especially important if you eat a lot of rice or use other rice products such as rice cereal, rice milk, or rice flour. If you eat gluten-free baked goods, you may be eating a lot of rice flour without realizing it. Arsenic accumulates in the body, increasing risk of heart disease; diabetes; and skin, bladder, and lung cancer. It impairs cognitive development in children, leading to lower IQs.

chickens complaining about arsenic

Minimize overall arsenic intake

Because Cook for Good focuses on whole grains and minimally processed food, our menu stays the same: up to two servings of brown rice a week, preferably organic. A serving is 1/4 cup of uncooked rice or about 2/3rds cup cooked rice. Children should eat up to 1.25 servings a week.

I now cook rice in lots of water to dilute the arsenic (and unfortunately nutritional value). I rinse rice well as always, soak it overnight to open up the grain and let the arsenic out, then cook it in five cups of fresh water per cup of rice and drain it. If you want to go one step further, you can rinse the cooked rice in hot water to remove the last of the cooking water. None of the rice water ends up in my broth jar, unlike pasta water. [Update: alert readers may notice that the soaking overnight step is new. This is based on a report from the BBC which says that cooking rice in a lot of water reduces arsenic by 43% and soaking it overnight and then rinsing brings it down to 18%.]

Choose rice from India, Pakistan, or California. Avoid rice from Texas, Louisiana, or just vaguely from the U.S. Ask your local rice grower if their fields were formerly used for tobacco or cotton, which could have residual arsenic from pesticides.

Whole-food alternatives to brown rice include sweet potatoes, white potatoes, quinoa, barley, kasha, wheat bread, and corn bread.

White rice has less arsenic because the bran and germ layers have been removed, essentially peeling the rice. This means less arsenic but also less fiber and nutrition, including lower levels of vitamins B1, B3, iron, and magnesium. Consumer Reports recommends adults eat up to 4.5 servings of white basmati or sushi rice a week. It also says children should not drink rice milk on a regular basis and to watch your overall intake of arsenic:

Arsenic risk is based on cumulative exposure over a lifetime. The recommendations are based on a person eating just one type of product per day or per week over a lifetime. If people exceed these limits one week, they can cut back the next.

To keep your overall arsenic levels low, choose organic apples and apple juice and don't smoke tobacco or eat chicken, turkey, pork, or bivalves such as scallops, mussels, and oysters.

 Get the Consumer Reports summary here and the full report here.

Where does arsenic in rice, apples, chicken, and pigs come from?

Arsenic in the food supply comes from arsenic in chicken and pig food (see below) and from arsenic lingering after being sprayed on apples, cotton, tobacco, and other crops. It also occurs naturally in the ground. Rice absorbs arsenic from the ground and water more easily than other plants. Even organic growing practices can't protect against arsenic when the ground or water is contaminated. Organic food does reduce your overall exposure to toxins and callous growers. Tom Philpott reports that organic rice growers are taking the arsenic issue seriously while conventional growers are mostly "in denial."

Some farmers feed arsenic to chickens and turkeys and then use their by-products as fertilizer. Histostat (nitarsone) is an arsenic-based drug fed to poultry to increase their weight, change their meat color, and prevent the deadly disease blackhead. I've seen questions about where to get Histostat on forums for backyard-chicken enthusiasts, too.  Histostat is the last of four arsenic-based drugs still approved by the FDA. The manufacturer has promised to quit making it and asked the FDA to ban it at the end of 2015. Histostat lasts for three years and is still being sold, so it will probably be used at least that long. If you eat industrially raised chicken or turkeys, be aware that you are adding to your arsenic load and supporting the increase of arsenic in the ground and water.

The new Trans-Pacific Partnership will allow foreign companies to protest our food-safety regulations if the regulations restrict business. [Update: great news! The US withdrew from the TPP in January 2017!] As Senator Elizabeth Warren points out, the TPP actually undermines US sovereignty by having these complaints heard by a international panel of arbitrators -- arbitrators who work for, you got it, international companies. It seems entirely possible that the U.S. will be sued for banning arsenic-based poultry and swine drugs and that their use will resume. Traditionally, Chinese farmers fed arsenic to pigs to make the flesh pink, a practice which the Washington Post says may still to be used today. U.S. farmers also fed pigs arsenic until just a few years ago. Could the TPP mean the hog farms in the US, including the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, will start using arsenic again too?

More research and clear explanations needed

The combinatorial effect of arsenic in various foods needs to be studied and clear guidelines developed. Nearly every study focuses on a single source of contamination while pointing out that arsenic exposure is cumulative and damaging at even low levels. FDA, are you listening?

Reader Comments (2)

Coming from a sprout mindset, would soaking brown rice overnight at a 6:1 ratio also reduce arsenic? And still allow my rice cooker to do its job?

Jan 20, 2016 | Registered Commenterecoenergygirl

Dear Ecoenergygirl, you spotted this months before the BBC! Yes, soaking really helps. I suspect that you need to cook the rice in a lot of water to dilute it to safer levels, so you could probably cook a little rice in a big rice cooker and turn it off manually. My small rice cooker is now for other grains, alas.

Jun 23, 2017 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson
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