Arsenic in Rice: Is It Really an Issue? | BeyondCeliac.org
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Arsenic in Rice: Is It Really an Issue?

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Tricia Thompson, MS, RD of Gluten-Free Watchdog answers common questions about arsenic in rice.

Inorganic arsenic in rice is increasingly becoming a source of concern for many consumers. At the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), we regularly receive questions about this topic. For those with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders, food is the only medicine, so the possibility of consuming high levels of arsenic in rice, a naturally gluten-free food, is particularly alarming for some.

Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, has been studying this topic since 2009, when she started receiving similar questions from concerned gluten-free consumers. “Initially, I, admittedly, didn’t want to write about it, but realized it was an issue I needed to start thinking about,” says Thompson, whose favorite food is, coincidentally, rice.

She started out by surveying gluten-free consumers about their rice-eating habits, finding that there may be potential for eating too much arsenic from rice in those who rely on rice-based gluten-free products. Thompson also studied the work of Dr. Andrew Meharg from the Institute of Biology and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK, an expert on arsenic. She has continued her investigations through the years, and recently released the first set of results from a larger study to test arsenic levels in rice-based gluten-free products.

This first set of results are from five rice-based gluten-free cereals. These cereals had varying results, with some testing above the general guideline of 200 parts per billion inorganic arsenic. Thompson will also report test results – from Dartmouth Trace Element Analysis Core at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at Dartmouth – for rice-based gluten-free breads, pastas, flour mixes, and more.

These results will be released in batches of five products to subscribers of Thompson’s website, GlutenFreeWatchdog.com. In addition, subscribers will have the chance to ask Thompson specific questions about her study and this issue in general.

Want to know how you can protect yourself and learn more about arsenic in rice? Read on for some quick facts and helpful suggestions from NFCA and Tricia Thompson!

Is arsenic in rice more of a concern for those with celiac disease?

People with celiac disease are not at greater risk of developing complications from arsenic in rice because of their condition. However, for those who are gluten-free, rice tends to be a staple in their diets. These individuals may eat more rice, or rice-based products, than the average consumer, which exposes them to more of the carcinogen. It is also important to note that, “In general, people will be exposed to high levels of inorganic arsenic if they are drinking ground water or eating foods that are made with, or irrigated by, this water,” says Thompson.

However, this is not something to panic about. Even small dietary adjustments can limit an individual’s exposure to arsenic.

How can I limit the amount of arsenic I’m consuming?

  • Choose processed gluten-free products based on ingredients, not price or other factors. For example, choose:
    • Corn grits over hot rice cereal
    • Breads that use tapioca starch or millet over rice-based breads
    • White rice over brown rice
  • Cook rice like you would cook pasta – use more water than the box calls for, and rinse it when it’s finished cooking
  • Check the source of your rice – arsenic content of rice, in part, depends on water quality and irrigation
    • Basmati rice from India is a good choice
    • Californian rice is generally lower in arsenic that South Central rice
  • Pay attention to the arsenic levels in your drinking water
    • Check for test results for arsenic levels in city-sourced and well water
    • Call bottled water manufacturers and ask about the arsenic levels in their water based off of FDA standards

Should I be worried about arsenic in rice?

Arsenic is a known carcinogenic. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause cancers (especially lung, bladder, and skin), as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many other non-carcinogenic effects. Young children are at a greater risk of developing complications from long-term exposure, so rice consumption should be monitored. More research is needed in this field to determine the consumer’s actual risk of health problems due to arsenic in rice.

What is being done about this issue?

Many regulatory entities (such as the FDA, Codex, and the European Union) either already have, or are developing, guidelines for safe and acceptable levels of arsenic. For more information on each of these entities’ suggested levels, see Thompson’s post on her blog, GlutenFreeDietitian.com.

In the meantime, it is important for consumers to talk to manufacturers about their testing practices, and urge them to begin testing if they haven’t already. “I do think this is something that manufacturers need to be taking seriously and getting ahead of the game,” says Thompson, who hopes that companies will even begin posting testing results on their websites with better understanding of the issue.

To continue learning about the issue of inorganic arsenic in rice, follow the Beyond Celiac Research News Feed and sign up for updates from Thompson’s site, www.GlutenFreeWatchdog.com.

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