Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food?

Arsenic is not just considered to be a carcinogen; it’s also designated as a “nonthreshold carcinogen, meaning that any dose, no matter how small, carries some cancer risk”—so there really isn’t a “safe” level of exposure. Given that, it may be reasonable to “use the conservative ALARA” approach, reducing exposure As Low As Reasonably Achievable.

I have a low bar for recommending people avoid foods that aren’t particularly health-promoting in the first place. Remember when that acrylamide story broke, about the chemical found concentrated in french fries and potato chips? (See my video Acrylamide in French Fries for more.) My take was pretty simple: Look, we’re not sure how bad this acrylamide stuff is, but we’re talking about french fries and potato chips, which are not healthy anyway. So, I had no problem provisionally bumping them from my list of yellow-light foods into my red-light list, from “minimize consumption” to “ideally avoid on a day-to-day basis.”

One could apply the same logic here. Junk foods made out of brown rice syrup, rice milk, and white rice are not just processed foods, but also arsenic-contaminated processed foods, so they may belong in the red zone as red-light foods we should avoid. What about something like whole brown rice? That is more difficult, because there are pros to help outweigh the cons. I discuss this in my video Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food?, where you can see a graphical depiction of my traffic light food system at 0:49.

The rice industry argues that the “many health benefits of rice consumption outweigh any potential risk,” which is the same sentiment you hear coming out of Japan about the arsenic-contaminated seaweed hijiki: Yes, “the cancer risk posed by hijiki consumption exceeds this acceptable [cancer risk] level by a factor of 10,” an order of magnitude, but the Japanese Ministry of Health stresses the “possible health benefits,” such as lots of fiber and minerals, as if hijiki was the only weed in the sea. Why not choose any of the other seaweeds and get all the benefits without the arsenic? So, when the rice industry says the “many health benefits of rice consumption outweigh any potential risk,” it’s as if brown rice was the only whole grain on the planet. Can’t you get the whole grain benefits without the risks by eating oatmeal, barley, or quinoa instead? Or, is there some unique benefit to rice, such that we really should try to keep brown rice in our diet?

Consumer Reports recommended moving rice to the yellow-light zone—in other words, don’t necessarily avoid it completely, but moderate your intake. The rice industry, in a fact sheet entitled “The Consumer Reports Article is Flawed,” criticized Consumer Reports for warning people about the arsenic levels in rice, saying “[t]here is a body of scientific evidence that establishes…the nutritional benefits of rice consumption; any assessment of the arsenic levels in rice that fails to take this information into account is inherently flawed and very misleading.” The rice industry cites two pieces of evidence. First, it asserts that rice-consuming cultures tend to be healthier, but is that because of, or despite, their white rice consumption? And what about the fact that rice-eating Americans tend to be healthier? Perhaps, but they also tend to eat significantly less saturated fat. So, once again, how do we know whether it’s because of—or despite—the white rice?

The rice industry could have cited the study I discuss at 3:12 in my video that showed that brown rice intake of two or more servings a week was associated with a lower risk of diabetes, but presumably, the reason it didn’t is because intake of white rice is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, and white rice represents 95 percent of the U.S. rice industry. Switching out a third of a serving of white rice a day for brown rice might lower diabetes risk by 16 percent, but switching out that same white rice for whole grains in general, like oats or barley, might work even better! So, other grains have about ten times less arsenic and are associated with even lower disease risk. No wonder the rice industry doesn’t cite this study.

It does cite the Adventist studies, though, and some in vitro data. For example, in a petri dish, as you can see at 4:05 in my video, there are rice phytonutrients that, at greater and greater doses, can inhibit the growth of colon cancer cells while apparently leaving normal colon cells alone, which is exciting. And, indeed, those who happened to eat those phytonutrients in the form of brown rice once or more a week between colonoscopies had a 40 percent lower risk of developing polyps. (The consumption of green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and beans were also associated with lower polyp incidence.) But, the only reason we care about the development of polyps is that polyps can turn into cancer. But, there had never been studies on brown rice consumption and cancer…until now, which I discuss in my video Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.


For those unfamiliar with my traffic light system, I talk about it in my book trailer. Check out How Not to Die: An Animated Summary.

Almost there! This is the corresponding article to the 12th in my 13-video series on arsenic in the food supply. If you missed any of the first 11 videos, see:

Ready for the finale? See Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

And you may be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much?

What are some strategies to reduce arsenic exposure from rice?

Those who are exposed to the most arsenic in rice are those who are exposed to the most rice, like people who are eating plant-based, gluten-free, or dairy-free. So, at-risk populations are not just infants and pregnant women, but also those who may tend to eat more rice. What “a terrible irony for the health conscious” who are trying to avoid dairy and eat lots of whole foods and brown rice—so much so they may not only suffer some theoretical increased lifetime cancer risk, but they may actually suffer arsenic poisoning. For example, a 39-year-old woman had celiac disease, so she had to avoid wheat, barley, and rye, but she turned to so much rice that she ended up with sky-high arsenic levels and some typical symptoms, including “diarrhea, headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, abnormal taste, and impaired short-term memory and concentration.” As I discuss in my video How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much, we, as doctors, should keep an eye out for signs of arsenic exposure in those who eat lots of rice day in and day out.

As you can see at 1:08 in my video, in its 2012 arsenic-in-rice exposé, Consumer Reports recommended adults eat no more than an average of two servings of rice a week or three servings a week of rice cereal or rice pasta. In its later analysis, however, it looked like “rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than [its] 2012 data showed,” so Consumer Reports dropped its recommendation down to from three weekly servings to a maximum of only two, and that’s only if you’re not getting arsenic from other rice sources. As you can see from 1:29 in my video, Consumer Reports came up with a point system so people could add up all their rice products for the week to make sure they’re staying under seven points a week on average. So, if your only source of rice is just rice, for example, then it recommends no more than one or two servings for the whole week. I recommend 21 servings of whole grains a week in my Daily Dozen, though, so what to do? Get to know sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, barley, or any of the other dozen or so common non-rice whole grains out there. They tend to have negligible levels of toxic arsenic.

Rice accumulates ten times more arsenic than other grains, which helps explain why the arsenic levels in urine samples of those who eat rice tend to consistently be higher than those who do not eat rice, as you can see at 2:18 in my video. The FDA recently tested a few dozen quinoa samples, and most had arsenic levels below the level of detection, or just trace amounts, including the red quinoas that are my family’s favorite, which I was happy about. There were, however, still a few that were up around half that of rice. But, overall, quinoa averaged ten times less toxic arsenic than rice. So, instead of two servings a week, following the Consumer Reports recommendation, you could have 20. You can see the chart detailing the quinoa samples and their arsenic levels at 2:20 in my video.

So, diversifying the diet is the number-one strategy to reduce exposure of arsenic in rice. We can also consider alternatives to rice, especially for infants, and minimize our exposure by cooking rice like pasta with plenty of extra water. We found that a 10:1 water-to-rice ratio seemed best, though the data suggest the rinsing doesn’t seem to do much. We can also avoid processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup. Is there anything else we can do at the dining room table while waiting for federal agencies to establish some regulatory limits?

What if you eat a lot of fiber-containing foods with your rice? Might that help bind some of the arsenic? Apparently not. In one study, the presence of fat did seem to have an effect, but in the wrong direction: Fat increased estimates of arsenic absorption, likely due to the extra bile we release when we eat fatty foods.

We know that the tannic acid in coffee and especially in tea can reduce iron absorption, which is why I recommend not drinking tea with meals, but might it also decrease arsenic absorption? Yes, by perhaps 40 percent or more, so the researchers suggested tannic acid might help, but they used mega doses—17 cups of tea worth or that found in 34 cups of coffee—so it isn’t really practical.

What do the experts suggest? Well, arsenic levels are lower in rice from certain regions, like California and parts of India, so why not blend that with some of the higher arsenic rice to even things out for everybody?

What?!

Another wonky, thinking-outside-the-rice-box idea involves an algae discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park with an enzyme that can volatize arsenic into a gas. Aha! Researchers genetically engineered that gene into a rice plant and were able to get a little arsenic gas off of it, but the rice industry is hesitant. “Posed with a choice between [genetically engineered] rice and rice with arsenic in it, consumers may decide they just aren’t going to eat any rice” at all.


This is the corresponding article to the 11th in a 13-video series on arsenic in the food supply. If you missed any of the first ten videos, watch them here:

You may also be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

Only two major questions remain: Should we moderate our intake of white rice or should we minimize it? And, are there unique benefits to brown rice that would justify keeping it in our diet despite the arsenic content? I cover these issues in the final two videos: Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food? and Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal

When it comes to rice and rice-based products, pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that arsenic intake should be as low as possible.

“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been monitoring the arsenic content in foods” for decades, yet despite the “well-established science describing the health risks associated with arsenic exposure, no standards have been set limiting the amount of arsenic allowable in foods” in the United States. In 2001, the EPA “adopted a new stricter standard for arsenic in drinking water,” and in 2013, the FDA proposed a legal limit for apple juice. “There are still no standards for arsenic in food products despite the fact that food sources are our main source of exposure.”

Unlike the United States, China has standards. As of 2014, China set a maximum threshold of inorganic arsenic at 150 parts per billion, stricter than the World Health Organization’s limit of 200 ppb. In the United States, a 200 ppb limit wouldn’t change the cancer risk much. If we had China’s safety limits of 150 ppb, though, cancer risk would be reduced up to 23 percent and a maximum threshold of 100 ppb would lower cancer risk up to 47 percent—but that could seriously affect the rice industry. In other words, U.S. rice is so contaminated with arsenic that if a safety standard that really cut down on cancer risk were set, it “would wipe out the U.S. rice market.” However, with no limits, what’s the incentive for the rice industry to change its practices? Setting arsenic limits would not only directly protect consumers but also encourage the industry to stop planting rice paddies on arsenic-contaminated land.

Those cancer estimates are based on arsenic-contaminated water studies. Might the arsenic in rice somehow have a different effect? You don’t know…until you put it to the test. We know rice has a lot of toxic arsenic that urine studies have shown we absorb into our body, but there hadn’t been any studies demonstrating “deleterious health impacts” specific to rice arsenic—until now. Since arsenic causes bladder cancer, the researchers figured they would see what kind of DNA mutations the urine of rice eaters can have on human bladder cells growing in a petri dish. And, indeed, they clearly demonstrated that eating a lot of arsenic-contaminated rice every day can “give rise to significant amounts of genetic damage,” the kind that‘s associated with cancer. Yes, but the study used pretty contaminated rice. However, only about 10 percent of the rice in certain parts of Asia might ever reach those levels of contamination, though a quarter of rice in parts of Europe might and more half in the United States, making for considerable public health implications.

So, “there remains little mystery surrounding the health risks associated with arsenic levels in rice. The remaining mystery is why long-overdue standards for arsenic levels in rice have not been set by the FDA” in the United States, but that may be changing. In 2016, the FDA proposed setting a limit on toxic arsenic—at least in infant rice cereal, which I discuss in my video Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal.

As you can see at 3:24 in my video, infants and children under four years of age average the highest rice intake, in part because they eat about three times the amount of food in relation to their body size, so there’s an especially “urgent need for regulatory limits” on toxic arsenic in baby food.

Pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that when it comes to rice and rice-based products, “arsenic intake should be as low as possible,” but how about as early as possible? Approximately 90 percent of pregnant women eat rice, which may end up having “adverse health effects” on the baby.

You can estimate how much rice the mother ate while pregnant by analyzing arsenic levels in the infant’s toenail clippings. “Specifically, an increase of 1/4 cup of rice per day was associated with a 16.9% increase in infants toenail [arsenic] concentration,” which indicates that arsenic in rice can be passed along to the fetus. What might that arsenic do? A quarter cup of rice worth of arsenic has been associated with low birth weight, increased respiratory infections, and, above that, a 5- to 6-point reduction in IQ, among other issues. So, “based on the FDA’s findings, it would be prudent for pregnant women to consume a variety of foods, including varied grains (such as wheat, oats, and barley),” which is code for cut down on rice. Saying eat less of anything, after all, is bad for business.

Once the baby is weaning, “what’s a parent to do?” Asks Consumer Reports, “To reduce arsenic risks, we recommend that babies eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. And their diets should include cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic”—that is, rely on other grains, which are much less contaminated than rice. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized, “there is no demonstrated benefit of rice cereal over those made with other grains such as oat, barley, and multigrain cereals, all of which have lower arsenic levels than rice cereal.” As you can see at 5:28 in my video, reducing consumption of infant rice cereal to just two servings per week could have an even more dramatic effect on reducing risk.

 The proposed limit on toxic arsenic in infant rice cereals would end up removing about half of the products off the shelves. The FDA analyzed more than 500 infant and toddler foods, and the highest levels of toxic arsenic were found in organic brown rice cereals and “Toddler Puffs.” Based on the wording in the report, these puffs appear to be from the Happy Baby brand. Not-so-happy baby if they suffer brain damage or grow up to get cancer. A single serving could expose infants to twice the tolerable arsenic intake set by the EPA for water. I contacted the Happy Baby company and was told they “are not able to provide any comments” on the FDA’s results.

“Eliminating all rice and rice products from the diets of infants and small children up to 6 years old could reduce the lifetime cancer risk from inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products by 6% and 23% respectively.” That is, there would be a 6 percent lower chance of developing lung or bladder cancer later in life if infants stopped, and a 23 percent lower chance if young kids stopped. However, switching to other grains is a move described as “drastic and dramatic,” creating “a huge crisis”—for the rice industry, presumably—and therefore “not feasible at all.”

I was hoping Happy Baby, upon learning of the concerning FDA arsenic toddler puffs data (regardless of whether the data were about its brand or not) would have kicked its own testing and potential remediation into high gear like Lundberg did (see Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?). But, unfortunately, in my email correspondence with the company, I got no sense that it did.


For more videos on this topic, see:

And here are five more:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: