By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Sept. 19, 2012 -- Arsenic is found in a wide variety of rice and rice products, sometimes at levels that are higher than safe limits set for drinking water, new tests confirm.
Separate test results were released on Wednesday by Consumer Reports, the FDA, and by Lisa Madigan, the attorney general for the state of Illinois. Madigan has been testing rice products as part of a state investigation into arsenic in food.
Based on its tests of 60 products, Consumer Reports says kids and adults should watch how much rice they eat from various sources (like rice milk and rice cereal) to lower their exposure to arsenic, which has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and poor brain function in young children.
"First and foremost, I want to warn parents that every rice cereal product we tested contained arsenic. These results are shocking because rice cereal is often a baby's first solid food," Madigan says. "Parents and caregivers should moderate the amount of rice products they feed their children."
The FDA's tests of 200 different rice products show levels of harmful inorganic arsenic that are in line with tests performed by Consumer Reports. The magazine analyzed rice products including infant cereals, regular boxed cereals, rice cakes, rice milk, and brown and white rice. Both organic and nonorganic rice products were found to have arsenic.
Eating one serving of rice at the highest levels found in the studies could expose a person to more arsenic than the EPA allows in drinking water.
Based on their findings, Consumer Reports and Madigan have called on the FDA to set limits on arsenic in rice and rice products.
The agency says the issue needs more study. They are continuing to check rice products, with a goal of testing 1,200 by the end of this year. For the time being, regulators say there's not enough evidence to tell people to limit rice in their diets.
"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," says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD.
Rice Growers Respond
Rice producers fired back at Consumer Reports. In a lengthy rebuttal posted on the USA Rice Federation web site, they called the magazine's investigation "incomplete and inaccurate."
"We believe rice is safe and it's premature for CR to call on consumers to limit their intake of rice. FDA agrees," says Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokeswoman for USA Rice.
The statement points out that there are no established studies directly connecting eating rice with bad health effects.
That's true, but only because those studies "simply haven't been conducted," says Andrew Meharg, PhD, chair of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
Heath Effects at Lower Levels Uncertain
At high levels, arsenic causes discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness, paralysis, and blindness.
But at the low levels most people are exposed to through food and drinking water, the dangers are less clear. People who drink water with moderate levels of arsenic -- higher than levels typically seen in the U.S. supply -- over a long period of time have higher rates of bladder, lung, and skin cancers. Long-term exposure has also been linked to heart disease, and in children, to problems with learning and IQ.
Because arsenic is naturally found in the soil, water, and air, it's also found in many fruits and vegetables. Rice is uniquely vulnerable to contamination with arsenic, however, because it's grown in flooded fields. Rice plants soak it up through their roots and store it in the grains.
"The arsenic levels measured in rice are relatively high. They are higher than levels measured in other grains such as flour products or than those measured in fruit juice," says Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.
Her analysis of government nutrition data found that people who eat one rice food item have arsenic levels that were about 44% higher than those who didn't. People who reported eating two or more items had 70% higher arsenic levels than those who had none.
"I believe it is time to set standards in food, as well as to monitor arsenic levels in food, and to find methods to minimize arsenic exposure through dietary intake, especially rice," she tells WebMD.
Advice for Consumers
To lower your exposure to arsenic, Consumer Reports offers these tips:
- Test your water. If your home is not on a public water system, have your water tested for arsenic and lead.
- Change the way you cook rice. Boiling rice with more water than you need and draining it afterward removes about 30% of the inorganic arsenic. Try using a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 6 cups of water.
- Eat a varied diet. Some vegetables accumulate arsenic when grown in contaminated soil. To help, clean vegetables thoroughly, especially potato skins.
- Eat other grains. Wheat and oats have lower levels of arsenic than rice. For those who need to eat gluten-free, quinoa, millet, and amaranth may be better options.
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