Yes, There is Arsenic in Your Rice

Arsenic in Rice

Lately, I’m asked one question more than any other (including by 4 different strangers while on the quinoa aisle in Whole Foods in the past week).

The question: Is there really arsenic in rice, and if there is, how does it get there?

My answer: It’s complicated.

Of course, it’s my job to answer the complicated questions related to gluten free living and wellness and to make the answers easy to understand (which isn’t always easy!).

To make informed decisions, we need solid information based on valid scientific research.

This is especially important in the case of rice containing arsenic because rice (in one form or another) is present in nearly all gluten free products on the market today. That affects all of us on a gluten free diet.

I understand you need answers to the “rice question”. I have them for you…

Is there Arsenic in My Rice?

Yes. Arsenic shows up in foods like shellfish, oysters, fruits and vegetables, and especially in rice. Arsenic also occurs in soil and groundwater.

To understand the whole story about arsenic in our food supply, it helps to understand…

What is Arsenic and How does it Get into Foods?

Arsenic occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. This is how it makes its way into soil and groundwater.

>Arsenic has properties of a metal and a non-metal (referred to as a “metalloid”), which made it appealing in various industries over the years as:

  • A component of some medicines
  • An active ingredient in pesticides
  • A wood preservative
  • A feed additive for livestock
  • A component of metal in car batteries

As scientists learned of its toxic effects on humans, many industries ceased using arsenic or began using the less-toxic, organic form.

{Note: There are two forms of arsenic: inorganic and organic. Both forms occur naturally. Inorganic arsenic is found in certain types of rocks (igneous and sedimentary) with metals and usually along with elements like oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. Inorganic arsenic is the most abundant and most toxic form. Organic arsenic is associated with carbon and hydrogen, and passes through the body quickly, making it less toxic.} 

While its use in industry impacts arsenic levels in the environment (atmosphere, soil, and groundwater), natural differences in the earth’s crust mean groundwater concentrations of arsenic vary regionally in the United States. Arsenic in soil and groundwater directly impacts crops, and in turn, the foods we eat.

One important region to consider when it comes to arsenic levels in rice is the Mississippi Delta.

When cotton was king in the Delta, arsenic-based chemicals were sprayed onto crops to control pests. Unfortunately, arsenic never breaks down and toxic residues from these pesticides linger in the soil. This means elevated arsenic levels in soil and groundwater remain long after much of the cotton is gone.

Rice now replaces cotton in the arsenic-rich soils of the Mississippi Delta. In fact, much of the rice grown in the U.S. comes from south central states, especially the Mississippi River Delta area of Arkansas and Mississippi.

Making matters worse, rice is particularly fond of arsenic. That’s because the plants need another element, silica, to maintain their structure. Silica and arsenic “look” similar to the rice plants, so they eagerly take up both from soil and groundwater.

So, if this has been going on for decades, why is this such a hot topic now?

Recent Research Reveals Shocking Information that Affects Our Gluten Free Diet!

While this is not new information, recent research increases awareness and concern about arsenic levels in our food supply.

In a study published last month, Dartmouth College scientists revealed certain foods containing organic brown rice syrup had abnormally high arsenic levels. Products tested were various baby formulas, protein bars, and energy drinks containing organic brown rice syrup.

Other rice products, such as rice grain, rice flakes, and rice flour were ingredients in the protein bars tested.

Previous studies have implicated rice as a source of arsenic, which is what spurned researchers to look more closely at rice derivatives like brown rice syrup.

Discovering these seemingly extreme levels of arsenic in infant formula is of particular concern. Babies consuming formula multiple times each day, often as their sole source of nourishment, could be at an increased risk of serious health issues like cancer.

Of course, with such a serious issue, the FDA is sure to get involved, right? WRONG!

What are the Federal Guidelines Regarding 

Arsenic in our Food?

There are none. That’s right, there are NO federal limits for the amount of arsenic that’s acceptable in our food.

There are federal limits for the amount of arsenic in drinking water. Set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb).

To make that number a little more “real”, think of it like this…10 ppb would be like adding a teaspoon of salt to a 10 TON bag of potato chips. You could also think of it as 10 drops of ink in a large gasoline tanker truck full of water.

When it comes to arsenic levels in our food, scientists across the board agree that we need the same strict standard as those in place for drinking water. While the FDA did start testing arsenic levels in U.S.-grown rice (and other items like apple and grape juice), the results are still pending. It could be a very long time before any type of regulation is put into place for arsenic levels in food.

Until then…

Should We Stop Eating Rice Altogether?

This is a personal decision. To help us make it, here’s what top researchers in the area of food safety and arsenic studies are telling us (As always, I have listed my sources at the end of this article.):

-     Eat a varied diet, rotating rice consumption with other grains (gluten free, in our case)

-     Occasionally eating a protein bar (again, gluten free for us) shouldn’t be a problem, but daily consumption is probably not a good idea

-     While the amount of arsenic in rice varies depending on where the rice is grown, brown rice does tend to contain more arsenic than white rice

-     Infant formulas with brown rice syrup (or other rice ingredients) should perhaps be avoided altogether

Specifically for those of us on a gluten free diet, the chemist who led the Dartmouth College research on arsenic in rice suggests diversifying grains if your diet contains a lot of rice.

Some ideas on diversifying grains on our gluten free diet are

-     Using alternative gluten free flours in our baking (sorghum, millet, quinoa, certified gluten free oat, amaranth, tapioca, potato starch, etc.)

-     Replacing rice in dishes with quinoa, amaranth, or other gluten free grains and seeds

-     Using another sweetener in place of brown rice syrup in our cooking and baking (honey, pure maple syrup, coconut nectar, etc.)

-     Opting for non-rice plant milks like coconut, hemp, oat, etc. (soy and nut milks are an option if you’re not soy or nut free)

While this is not exhaustive coverage of the issue of arsenic in our food supply, I hope this information helps answer some of your questions and sheds some light on this important topic for you. Rest assured I’ll be keeping tabs on it and have more for you as the research reveals answers.


Gigi ;)

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  • Melissa

    Thanks for clarifying a very confusing topic that’s been in the news recently. Sometimes it’s had to separate the facts from fiction (and over-dramatization by news media).