Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?

Are there unique benefits to brown rice that would justify keeping it in our diet despite the arsenic content?

For years, warnings had been given about the arsenic levels in U.S. rice potentially increasing cancer risk, but it had never been put to the test until a study out of Harvard. The finding? “Long-term consumption of total rice, white rice or brown rice[,] was not associated with risk of developing cancer in US men and women.” This was heralded as good news. Indeed, no increased cancer risk found even among those eating five or more servings of rice per week. But, wait a second: Brown rice is a whole grain, a whole plant food. Shouldn’t brown rice be protective and not just neutral? I discuss this in my video Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

If you look at whole grains in general, there is “a significant inverse”—or protective—“association between total whole-grain intake and risk of mortality from total cancers,” that is, dying from cancer. My Daily Dozen recommendation of at least three servings of whole grains a day was associated with a 10 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, a 25 percent lower risk of dying from heart attacks or strokes, and a 17 percent lower risk of dying prematurely across the board, whereas rice consumption in general was not associated with mortality and was not found to be protective against heart disease or stroke. So, maybe this lack of protection means that the arsenic in rice is increasing disease risk, so much so that it’s cancelling out some of the benefits of whole-grain brown rice.

Consumer Reports suggested moderating one’s intake of even brown rice, but, given the arsenic problem, is there any reason we should go out of our way to retain any rice in our diet at all? With all of the other whole grain options out there, should we just skip the rice completely? Or, are there some unique benefits we can get from rice that would justify continuing to eat it, even though it has ten times more arsenic than other grains?

One study showed that “a brown rice based vegan diet” beat out the conventional Diabetes Association diet, even after adjusting for the extra belly fat lost by the subjects on the vegan diet, but that may have been due to the plant-based nature of their diet rather than just how brown rice-based it was.

Another study found a profound improvement in insulin levels after just five days eating brown rice compared to white rice, but was that just because the white rice made people worse? No, the brown rice improved things on its own, but the study was done with a South Indian population eating a lot of white rice to begin with, so this may have indeed been at least in part a substitution effect. And yet another study showed that instructing people to eat about a cup of brown rice a day “could significantly reduce weight, waist and hip circumference, BMI, Diastole blood pressure,” and inflammation—and not just because it was compared to white. However, a larger, longer study failed to see much more than a blood pressure benefit, which was almost as impressive in the white-rice group, so, overall, not too much to write home about.

Then, another study rolled around—probably the single most important study on the pro-rice sideshowing a significant improvement in artery function after eight weeks of eating about a daily cup of brown rice, but not white, as you can see at 3:18 in my video, and sometimes even acutely. If you give someone a meal with saturated fat and white rice, you can get a drop in artery function within an hour of consumption if you have some obesity-related metabolic derangements. But, if you give brown rice instead of white, artery function appears protected against the adverse effects of the meal. Okay, so brown rice does show benefits in interventional studies, but the question is whether it shows unique benefits. Instead, what about oatmeal or whole wheat?

Well, first, researchers needed to design an artery-crippling meal, high in saturated fat. They went with a Haagen Daaz, coconut cream, and egg milkshake given with a bowl of oatmeal or “a comparable bowl of whole rolled wheat.” What do you think happened? Do you think these whole grains blocked the artery-damaging effects like the brown rice did? The whole oats worked, but the whole wheat did not. So, one could argue that brown rice may have an edge over whole wheat. Do oats also have that beneficial long-term effect that brown rice did? The benefit was of a similar magnitude but did not reach statistical significance.

So, what’s the bottom line? Until we know more, my current thinking on the matter is that if you really like rice, you can moderate your risk by cutting down, choosing lower arsenic varieties, and cooking it in a way to lower exposure even further. But, if you like other whole grains just as much and don’t really care if you have rice versus quinoa or another grain, I’d choose the lower arsenic option.

Tada! Done with arsenic in the food supply—for now. Should the situation change, I’ll produce another video on the latest news. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any updates.


Here are all 13 videos in the series, in case you missed any or want to go back and review:

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:

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:

How Risky Is the Arsenic in Rice?

Getting rice down to the so-called safe water limit for arsenic would still allow for roughly 500 times greater cancer risk than is normally considered acceptable. Given the level of arsenic in rice, how could we figure out how much rice is too much? There are no U.S. standards for arsenic in rice, even though “food sources are the main source of exposure.” There are limits on arsenic in apple juice and tap water, though. To calculate those, experts must have sat down, determined out how much arsenic a day was too much—too risky—then figured people typically drink about four to eight cups of water a day, and set the limits that way, right? Okay, well, can’t we just use their how-much-arsenic-a-day-is-too-much-arsenic-a-day number, and, based on the average arsenic content in rice, figure out how-much-rice-a-day-is-too-much-rice? I discuss this in my video How Risky Is the Arsenic in Rice?.

“The allowable level established by the FDA for arsenic in bottled water is 10 ppb,” assuming people might drink a liter a day. So, based on that daily 10 ppb limit, how much rice is that?

“Each 1 g increase in rice intake was associated with a 1% increase in urinary total arsenic, such that eating 0.56 cups [a little over a half cup] of cooked rice was considered comparable with drinking 1 L/d,” one liter per day, of that maximally contaminated water. Well, if you can eat a half cup a day, why does Consumer Reports suggest eating just a few servings of rice a week? You could eat nearly a serving every day and still stay within the daily arsenic limits set for drinking water.

Well, Consumer Reports felt the 10 ppb water standard was too lax, so, it went with the “most protective standard in the country,” at 5 ppb. Guess where it came from? New Jersey. Good for New Jersey! So, by using 5 ppb instead of 10 ppb in the calculation, you can see how Consumer Reports got to its only-a-few-servings-of-rice-a-week recommendation. Presumably, that’s based on average arsenic levels in rice. If you choose a lower-arsenic rice, one with only half the level of arsenic, can you have four servings a week instead of two? And, if you boil rice like pasta and drain off the excess water, doesn’t that also cut levels in half? If so, then you are up to about eight servings a week. Based on the water standard, apparently, you could still safely eat a serving of rice a day if you choose the right rice and cook it right. I assumed the water limit is ultra-conservative since people are expected to drink water every day of their lives, whereas most people don’t eat rice every day, seven days a week. I made that assumption, but I was wrong. It turns out the opposite is true.

All this time, I had been assuming the current drinking guideline exposure would be safe, which in terms of carcinogens, is usually “1 in a million chances of getting cancer over a lifetime.” I’ve mentioned this before. It’s how cancer-causing substances are typically regulated. If a company wants to release some new chemical, it has to show that it doesn’t cause more than one in a million excess cancer cases. Of course, there are 300 million people in this country, so that one-in-a-million doesn’t make the 300 extra families who have to deal with cancer feel any better, but that’s just the kind of agreed upon “acceptable risk.”

The problem, according to the National Research Council, is that with the current federal drinking water standard for arsenic of 10 μg/L, we are not talking about an excess cancer risk of 1 in a million people, but as high as 1 case in 300 people. Those 300 extra cases of cancer just turned into a million more cases? A million more families dealing with a cancer diagnosis? “This is 3000 times higher than a commonly accepted cancer risk for an environmental carcinogen of 1 case in 1 000 000 people.” If we were to use the normally accepted 1 in a million odds of cancer risk, the water standard would have to be 500 times lower, .02 instead of 10. Even the New Jersey standard is 250 times too high. “While this is a rather drastic difference… it underlines just how little precaution is instilled in the current guidelines.”

Hold on. So why isn’t the water standard .02 instead of 10? Because that “would be nearly impossible to implement” as we just don’t have the technology to get arsenic levels in water that low. The technologically feasible level has been estimated at 3. Okay, so why is the limit 10 and not 3? The decision to use a threshold of 10 instead of 3 was “mainly a budgetary decision.” A threshold of three would cost a lot of money.

So, the current water “safety” limit “is more motivated by politics than by technology.” Nobody wants to be told they have toxic tap water. If they did, they might demand better water treatment and that would be expensive. “As a result, many people drink water at levels very close to the current guideline… and may not be aware that they are exposed to an increased risk of cancer.” Even worse, millions of Americans drink water exceeding the legal limit, as you can see at 5:10 in my video. But, even the people living in areas that meet the legal limit “must understand that current arsenic guidelines are only marginally protective.”

Perhaps we should tell people who drink water—i.e., everyone—“that current arsenic regulations are a cost-benefit compromise and that, based on usual health risk paradigms, the standards should be much lower… People must be made aware that regulatory targets for arsenic should be as close to zero as possible,” and, when it comes to water, we should aim for the reachable limit of 3. What does this mean for rice, though?

Well, first of all, so much for just trying to get rice down to the so-called safe water limit, since that “already exceeds standard [carcinogen] risks and is based on feasibility and cost-benefit compromises,” which “allows for a roughly 500 times higher risk of cancer” than is normally considered acceptable. So, “while authorities ponder when and how they will regulate arsenic concentration in rice,” perhaps we should “curtail or strongly limit our consumption of rice.”

This is the corresponding blog post to the pivotal video in my 13-part series on arsenic in the food supply. The final three videos focus on how to deal practically with the repercussions:


If you missed any of the first nine videos, see:

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

My arsenic series reminds me of the extensive video series I did on lead:

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 Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup

I recommend people switch away from using rice milk

For kids and teens, the amount of arsenic flowing through their bodies was found to be about 15 percent higher for each quarter cup of rice consumed per day, and a similar link was found in adults. A study of pregnant women found that consuming about a half cup of cooked rice per day could raise urine arsenic levels as much as drinking a liter of arsenic-contaminated water at the current upper federal safety limit. These findings “suggest that many people in the United States may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of arsenic through rice consumption.” which I explore in my video Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup.

Do you know where Americans get most of their rice arsenic? From Rice Krispies, though brown rice crisps cereal may have twice as much, as I discuss in my video Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup.

“Organic brown rice syrup (OBRS) is used as a sweetener in organic food products as an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup.” Big mistake, as organic brown rice syrup products “may introduce significant concentrations” of toxic arsenic into people’s diets. For example, two energy chews sweetened with brown rice syrup might hit the provisional upper daily arsenic intake based on the water standards.

“Toddler formulas with added organic brown rice syrup have 20 times higher levels of inorganic [toxic] arsenic than regular formulas,” and in older children, thanks to brown rice syrup, a few cereal bars a day “could pose a very high cancer risk.”

What about rice milk? A consensus statement of both the European and North American societies for pediatric nutrition recommends the “avoidance of rice drinks for infants and young children,” and, generally, toxic “inorganic arsenic intake in infancy and childhood should be as low as possible.”

To this end, the United Kingdom has banned the consumption of rice milk for young children, a notion with which Consumer Reports concurred, recommending no servings a week of rice milk for children and no more than half a cup a day for adults, as you can see at 1:56 in my video.

The arsenic in various brands of rice milk ranges wildly—in fact, there’s a 15-fold difference between the highest and lowest contamination, suggesting manufacturers could make low arsenic rice milk if they wanted. As you can see at 2:16 in my video, Consumer Reports found rice drinks from Pacific and Rice Dream brands were right about average, though, for Rice Dream, it appears the vanilla or chocolate flavors may be lower. It doesn’t seem we have anything to worry about with rice vinegar, but rice pasta and rice cakes end up similar to pure rice in terms of arsenic levels, which makes sense because that’s pretty much what they are—pure rice. However, pasta is boiled, so we’d expect the levels to be cut 40 to 60 percent, like when you boil and drain rice.

If you just couldn’t live without rice milk for some reason, you could make your own using lower arsenic rice, like brown basmati from India, Pakistan, or California, but then your homemade rice milk might have even less nutrition, as most of the commercial brands are at least fortified. Better options might be soy, oat, hemp, or almond milk, though you don’t want kids to be drinking too much almond milk. There have been a few case reports of little kids drinking four cups a day and running into kidney stone problems due to its relatively high oxalate content, which averages about five times more than soy milk. More on oxalates in my video series starting with Oxalates in Spinach and Kidney Stones: Should We Be Concerned?

I have about 40 videos that touch on soy milk, discussing such topics as how it may normalize development in girls and reduce breast cancer risk, as well reduce prostate cancer risk in men. Some of the latest science on soy milk includes an association with better knee x-rays, suggesting protection from osteoarthritis, and an interventional study suggesting improved gut health by boosting the growth of good bacteria. However, drinking 3 quarts a day, which is 10 to 12 daily cups, for a year may inflame your liver, but two cups a day can have an extraordinary effect on your cholesterol, causing a whopping 25 percent drop in bad cholesterol after just 21 days.

An ounce and a half of almonds, about a handful, each day, can drop LDL cholesterol 13 percent in six weeks and reduce abdominal fat, though a cup of almond milk only contains about ten almonds, which is less than a third of what was used in the study. So, it’s not clear if almond milk helps much, but there was a study on oat milk compared to rice milk. As you can see at 4:37 in my video, five weeks of oat milk lowered bad cholesterol, whereas rice milk didn’t, and even increased triglycerides and may bump blood pressure a bit. However, the oat milk only dropped LDL about 5 percent and that was with three cups a day. As plant-based alternatives go, it appears soy milk wins the day.

So, why drink rice milk at all when there are such better options? There really isn’t much nutrition in rice milk. In fact, there are case reports of severe malnutrition in toddlers whose diets were centered around rice milk due to multiple food allergies. Infants and toddlers have increased protein requirements compared to adults, so if the bulk of a child’s diet is rice milk, coconut milk, potato milk, or almond milk, they may not get enough, as you can see at 5:23 in my video. In fact, cases of kwashiorkor—that bloated-belly protein- and calorie-deficient state of malnutrition—due to rice milk have been reported in Ethiopia…and Atlanta, Georgia, because literally 99 percent of the child’s diet was rice milk. So, these malnutrition cases were not because they drank rice milk, but rather because they drank rice milk nearly exclusively. I just use these examples to illustrate the relative lack of nutrition in rice milk. If you’re going to choose a milk alternative, you might as well go for one that has less arsenic—and more nutrition.

I have released several videos on soy milk, but only one on almond milk video so far: Prostate Cancer and Organic Milk vs. Almond Milk. I plan on producing many more on choosing between various milk options, so stay tuned.


If you’ve missed any of the useful material on dietary arsenic I’ve also shared, please see:

The final four videos in this series take all of this information and try to distill it into practical recommendations:

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.

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Which Rice Has the Least Amount of Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?

Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice, but the arsenic in brown rice is less absorbable, so how does it wash out when you compare the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters to brown-rice eaters?

Arsenic in rice is a cause for concern, according to a consensus statement by the European and North American societies for pediatric nutrition. At the very least, “in areas of the world where rice consumption is high in all ages, authorities should be prompted to declare which of the rice [types] have the lowest arsenic content and are, therefore, the least harmful for use during infancy and childhood.” I look into the arsenic content of different rices in my video Which Rice Has Less Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?.

Extensive recent testing by the FDA found that long grain white rice, which is what most people eat, appears to have more arsenic than medium or short grain rice, but this may be because most of the shorter grains are produced in California, which has significantly less contaminated rice paddies than those in the South, such as in Texas or Arkansas, where most of the long grain rice is grown. So, it’s less long grain versus short grain than white rice versus brown rice, as the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic in parts per billion of long grain white rice is 102.0 and 156.5 in short, medium, and long grain brown rice, as you can see at 0:54 in my video.

What about some of the naturally pigmented varieties like red rice or black rice, which may be even healthier than brown? As you can see at 1:08 in my video, they may contain even less arsenic than white rice. One sample of black rice from China that was purchased in Kuwait had higher levels for total arsenic, so the toxic inorganic portion may only be half that, putting it on par with U.S. brown rice. The study’s red rice sample from Sri Lanka was even more extraordinary, with less than a fifth of the arsenic of the Chinese black rice. But, the Sri Lankan red rice sample had a ridiculous high amount of cadmium, evidently attributed to the cadmium content of widely used Sri Lankan fertilizers.

Colored rice samples purchased mostly in the United States were better than brown or white, and a dozen samples of red rice purchased in Europe were as bad, or even worse, as brown rice. I was hoping that wild rice would have little or no arsenic because it’s a totally different plant, but an average of eight samples showed it to be nearly comparable to white, though the wild rice samples contained only half as much toxic arsenic as brown rice.

As you can see at 2:06 in my video, the arsenic found in a daily serving of white rice carries 136 times the acceptable cancer risk, but brown rice is even riskier at 162. Brown rice averages two-thirds more toxic arsenic than white rice. But, is that just because brown rice tends to be a different strain or grown in different places? No. If you take the exact same batch of brown rice and measure the arsenic levels before and after polishing it to white, you do get a significant drop in arsenic content.

It’s not what you eat, though. It’s what you absorb. The arsenic in brown rice appears to be less bioavailable than the arsenic in white rice. The texture of brown rice may cut down on the release of arsenic from the grain, or perhaps the bran in brown rice helps bind it up. Regardless, taking bioavailability into account, the difference in arsenic levels in white versus brown rice may be a third more, rather than 70 percent more, as you can see at 2:57 in my video. This estimate, however, was based on an in vitro gastrointestinal fluid system in which researchers strung together beakers and tubes to mimic our gut, with one flask containing stomach acid and another intestinal juices. What happened when it was tested in humans? Yes, “evidence suggests that brown rice may contain more arsenic than white rice,” but the researchers aimed to determine how much is actually absorbed by measuring the urine levels of arsenic in white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. For the arsenic to get from the rice into your bladder, it has to be absorbed through your gut into your bloodstream.

As you can see at 3:45 in my video, the urine of thousands of American test subjects who don’t eat rice at all still contains about 8 micrograms of toxic, carcinogenic arsenic a day. It’s in the air, it’s in the water, and there’s a little bit in nearly all foods. But, eat just one food—a cup or more of white rice a day—and your arsenic exposure shoots up by 65 percent to about 13 micrograms a day.

What about those who eat a cup or more of brown rice every day, which technically contains even more arsenic? Their exposure shoots up the same 65 percent. There is no difference between the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. However, this was not an interventional study in which they fed people the same amount of rice to see what happened, which would have been ideal. Instead, it was a population study, so maybe the reason the levels are the same is that white-rice eaters eat more rice than do brown-rice eaters. Could that be why they ended up with the same levels? We don’t know, but it should help to put the minds of brown-rice eaters to rest. But would it be better to eat no rice at all? That’s what I’ll explore in my next few blogs.


 If you’re just joining in on this topic, check out these lead-up videos:

 

It seems like each of these videos just raises more questions, but don’t worry because I’ve got answers for you. See:

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: