We are a nation of arsenic consumers. And I thought arsenic just featured in creepy fiction, like Roald Dahl’s wonderful story “The Landlady.”
First it was apple juice, when Dr. Oz claimed tests commissioned by the show had found potentially unsafe levels of arsenic in certain U.S. apple juice brands. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) disagreed, but a Consumer Reports study indicated that ten percent of the samples of popular apple and grape juice brands tested came back positive for inorganic arsenic levels above the U.S. legal limit for safe drinking water.
And now it’s rice.
In a just-released report, Consumer Reports (CR) says it found significant levels of arsenic in a variety of US rice products, including organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice and other types of rice products, many at worrisome levels.
Arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life. The report concluded that people who consume a serving of rice get a 44 percent spike in the arsenic level in their urine.
The FDA quickly issued a response to CR’s findings:
The FDA is in the process of collecting and analyzing a total of approximately 1,200 samples to examine the issue thoroughly. This data collection will be completed by the end of 2012. Once the data collection is completed, FDA will analyze these results and determine whether or not to issue additional recommendations.
Based on the currently available data and scientific literature the FDA does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.
“We understand that consumers are concerned about this matter. That’s why the FDA has prioritized analyzing arsenic levels in rice. The FDA is committed to ensuring that we understand the extent to which substances such as arsenic are present in our foods, what risks they may pose, whether these risks can be minimized, and to sharing what we know,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
In fact, the agency on Wednesday did release 200 of the expected 1,200 samples after CR released its own study and called for federal standards for arsenic in rice.
Both studies show relatively similar levels of arsenic in rice. The FDA’s analysis, including 200 samples, showed average levels of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Consumer Reports, with 223 samples, found levels up to 8.7 micrograms. That is roughly equivalent to one gram of arsenic in 115,000 servings of rice.
The question is, how dangerous is that? To get the official government response, we must wait until the end of the year: astonishingly, there are currently no federal standards for how much arsenic is allowed in food.
Arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms, organic and inorganic. According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. Inorganic arsenic – the type found in some pesticides and insecticides – can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or over a long period.
So what to do while we’re waiting for the official word?
Hamburg says consumers shouldn’t stop eating rice, though she does encourage a diverse diet just in case:
Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.
Consumer Reports suggests rice eaters limit themselves to one serving a day, especially for babies. Rinsing and then boiling rice in a 6 to 1 water ratio removes about 30 percent of its arsenic. They also caution that children under the age of 5 should not be given rice drinks as part of their daily diet. Click here to get specific information on portion sizes.
Personally, I think I’ll try alternative grains such as wheat, oats, quinoa and millet.
Photo Credit: jackeye