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 to Cook Rice to Lower Arsenic Levels

Boiling rice like pasta reduces arsenic levels, but how much nutrition is lost?

Cooking rice in a high water-to-rice ratio reduces toxic arsenic content, which I discuss in my video How to Cook Rice to Lower Arsenic Levels. What exactly does that mean? Well, as you can see at 0:16 in my video, if you boil rice like pasta and then drain off the water at the end, you can drop arsenic levels in half—50 to 60 percent of the arsenic gets poured down the drain—whereas the typical way we make rice, boiling off the water in a rice cooker or pot, for example, doesn’t help. In fact, it may even make things worse if the water you’re using to cook the rice has arsenic in it, too, which is a problem that exists for about three million Americans, as about 8 percent of public water supplies exceed the current legal arsenic limits.

“Cooking rice in excess water”—and then discarding the excess water—“efficiently reduces the amount of inorganic As [that is, toxic arsenic] in the cooked rice,” but how much nutrition are you pouring down the drain when you do pour off the excess water?

“Unpolished brown rice naturally contains vitamins and minerals that are lost when the bran layer and germ are removed to make white rice. To compensate, since the 1940s polished white and parboiled rice sold in the United States is often enriched”—that is, white rice has had vitamins and minerals sprayed on it to so it’s “enriched” and “fortified.” That’s why cooking instructions for enriched white rice specifically say you shouldn’t rinse it and you should cook it in a minimal amount of water. In other words, you should do the opposite of what you’d do to get rid of some of the arsenic. But brown rice has the nutrients inside, not just sprayed on.

“Rinsing [white] rice,” by putting it in a colander under running water, for example, “removes much of the enriched vitamins sprayed onto the rice grain surface during manufacture,” removing most of the B-vitamins. But, “rinsing had almost no effect on vitamins in whole grain brown rice”—because brown rice has got the nutrition inside. It’s the same with iron: Rinsing white rice reduces iron levels by about three-fourths, but the iron in brown rice is actually in it, so rinsing only reduces the iron concentration in brown rice by about 10 percent. Rinsing didn’t seem to affect the arsenic levels, so why bother?

Well, if you really wash the rice, for example, agitating the uncooked rice in water, rinsing, and repeating for three minutes, you may be able to remove about 10 percent of the arsenic. So, one research team recommends washing rice as well as boiling it in excess water, but I don’t know if the 10 percent is worth the extra time it takes to wash the rice. However, as we discussed, boiling rice like pasta and then draining off the excess water does really cut way down on the arsenic, and, while that cooking method also takes a whack at the nutrition in white rice, the nutrient loss in brown rice is “significantly less,” as it is not so much enriched as it is rich in nutrition in the first place.

“Cooking brown rice in large amounts of excess water reduces the toxic arsenic by almost 60% and only reduces the iron content by 5%. It reduces the vitamin content of brown rice by about half,” however. You can see a graph of what I’m talking about at 3:18 in my video. A quick rinse of brown rice before you cook it doesn’t lower arsenic levels, but boiling it and draining off the excess water, instead of cooking to dry, drops arsenic levels by 40 percent. That was using about a ratio of 6 parts water to 1 part rice. What if you use even more water, boiling at 10-to-1 water-to-rice ratio? You get a 60 percent drop in arsenic levels.

With white rice, you can rinse off a little arsenic, but after cooking, you end up with similar final drops in arsenic content, but the iron gets wiped out in white rice by rinsing and cooking, whereas the iron in brown rice stays strong. There are similar decrements in the B vitamins with cooking for brown and unrinsed white rice, but once you rinse white rice, the B vitamins are mostly gone before they even make it into the pot.

What about percolating rice? Well, we know that regular rice cooking doesn’t help reduce arsenic levels, but boiling then draining rice like pasta does, while steaming doesn’t do much. What about percolating rice as a radical rethink to optimize arsenic removal? Researchers tried two types of percolating technology: One was a mad scientist-type lab set-up, and the other was just a regular off-the-shelf coffee percolator. Instead of putting in coffee, they put rice and percolated 20 minutes for white and 30 for brown. The result? As you can see at 4:39 in my video, they got about a 60 percent drop in arsenic levels using a 12-to-1 water-to-rice ratio. Raw brown rice started out at about double the arsenic levels of raw white rice, but, after cooking with enough excess water and draining, they end up much closer. Though, a 60 percent drop in arsenic levels by percolating at a 12-to-1 ratio was about what we got boiling at just 10-to-1. So, I don’t see a reason to buy a percolator.

But, what does that 60 percent drop really mean? By boiling and draining a daily serving of rice, we could cut excess cancer risk more than half from about 165 times the acceptable cancer risk to only about…66 times the acceptable risk.


At this point, I can imagine you thinking, Wait, so should we avoid rice or not? I’m getting there. First, I’m just laying out the issue. Here are videos on the latest on the topic, if you’re interested:

 And here are six 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:

 

How to Treat Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) with Diet

Given the role that oxidant free radicals are thought to play in aging and disease, one reason fruits and vegetables may be so good for us is that they contain antioxidant compounds. As you can see at 0:20 in my video Benefits of Marjoram for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), different vegetables and herbs have different antioxidant content. When making a salad, for example, spinach, arugula, or red leaf lettuce may provide twice the antioxidants as butterhead lettuce, and choosing purple cabbage over green, or red onions over white can also boost the salad’s antioxidant power.

Fresh herbs are so powerful that even a small amount may double or even quadruple the antioxidant power of the entire meal. For instance, as you can see at 0:50 in my video, the total antioxidants in a simple salad of lettuce and tomato jump up by adding just a tablespoon of lemon balm leaves or half a tablespoon of oregano or mint. Adding marjoram, thyme, or sage not only adds great flavor to the salad, but effectively quadruples the antioxidant content at the same time, and adding a little fresh garlic or ginger to the dressing ups the antioxidant power even more.

Herbs are so antioxidant-rich that researchers decided to see if they might be able to reduce the DNA-damaging effects of radiation. Radioactive iodine is sometimes given to people with overactive thyroid glands or thyroid cancer to destroy part of the gland or take care of any remaining tumor cells after surgery. For days after the isotope injection, patients become so radioactive they are advised not to kiss or sleep close to anyone, including their pets, and if they breathe on a phone, they’re advised to wipe it “carefully” or cover it “with an easily removed plastic bag.” Other recommendations include “avoid[ing] splatter of radioactive urine,” not going near your kids, and basically just staying away from others as much as possible.

The treatment can be very effective, but all that radiation exposure appears to increase the risk of developing new cancers later on. In order to prevent the DNA damage associated with this treatment, researchers tested the ability of oregano to protect chromosomes of human blood cells in vitro from exposure to radioactive iodine. As you can see at 2:25 in my video, at baseline, about 1 in 100 of our blood cells show evidence of chromosomal damage. If radioactive iodine is added, though, it’s more like 1 in 8. What happens if, in addition to the radiation, increasing amounts of oregano extract are added? Chromosome damage is reduced by as much 70 percent. Researchers concluded that oregano extract “significantly protects” against DNA damage induced by the radioactive iodine in white blood cells. This was all done outside the body, though, which the researchers justified by saying it wouldn’t be particularly ethical to irradiate people for experimental research. True, but millions of people have been irradiated for treatment, and researchers could have studied them or, at the very least, they could have just had people eat the oregano and then irradiate their blood in vitro to model the amount of oregano compounds that actually make it into the bloodstream.

Other in vitro studies on oregano are similarly unsatisfying. In a comparison of the effects of various spice extracts, including bay leaves, fennel, lavender, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, and thyme, oregano beat out all but bay leaves in its ability to suppress cervical cancer cell growth in vitro while leaving normal cells alone. But people tend to use oregano orally—that is, they typically eat it—so the relevance of these results are not clear.

Similarly, marjoram, an herb closely related to oregano, can suppress the growth of individual breast cancer cells in a petri dish, as you can see at 3:53 in my video, and even effectively whole human breast tumors grown in chicken eggs, which is something I’ve never seen before. Are there any clinical trials on oregano-family herbs on actual people? The only such clinical, randomized, control study I could find was a study on how marjoram tea affects the hormonal profile of women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The most common cause of female fertility problems, PCOS affects up to one in eight young women and is characterized by excessive male hormones, resulting in excess body or facial hair, menstrual irregularities, and cysts in one’s ovaries that show up on ultrasounds.

Evidently, traditional medicine practitioners reported marjoram tea was beneficial for PCOS, but it had never been put to the test…until now. Drinking two daily cups of marjoram tea versus a placebo tea for one month did seem to beneficially affect the subjects’ hormonal profiles, which seems to offer credence to the claims of the traditional medicine practitioners. However, the study didn’t last long enough to confirm that actual symptoms improved as well, which is really what we care about.

Is there anything that’s been shown to help? Well, reducing one’s intake of dietary glycotoxins may help prevent and treat the disease. Over the past 2 decades there has been increasing evidence supporting an important contribution from food-derived advanced glycation end products (AGEs)…[to] increased oxidative stress and inflammation, processes that play a major role in the causation of chronic diseases,” potentially including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS tend to have nearly twice the circulating AGE levels in their bloodstream, as you can see at 0:33 in my video Best Foods for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). 

PCOS may be the most common hormonal abnormality among young women in the United States and is a common cause of infertility, menstrual dysfunction, and excess facial and body hair. The prevalence of obesity is also higher in women with PCOS. Since the highest AGE levels are found in broiled, grilled, fried, and roasted foods of “mostly animal origin,” is it possible that this causal chain starts with a bad diet? For instance, maybe eating lots of fried chicken leads to obesity, which in turn leads to PCOS. In that case, perhaps what we eat is only indirectly related to PCOS through weight gain. No, because the same link between high AGE levels and PCOS was found in lean women as well.

“As chronic inflammation and increased oxidative stress have been incriminated in the pathophysiology [or disease process] of PCOS, the role of AGEs as inflammatory and oxidant mediators, may be linked with the metabolic and reproductive abnormalities of the syndrome.” Further, the buildup of AGE inside polycystic ovaries themselves suggests a potential role of AGEs contributing to the actual disease process, beyond just some of its consequences.

RAGE is highly expressed in ovarian tissues. The receptor in the body for these advanced glycation end products, the “R” in RAGE, is concentrated in the ovaries, which may be particularly sensitive to its effect. So, AGEs might indeed be contributing to the cause of PCOS and infertility.

Does this mean we should just cut down on AGE-rich foods, such as meat, cheese, and eggs? Or hey, why not come up with drugs that block AGE absorption? We know AGEs have been implicated in the development of many chronic diseases. Specifically, food-derived AGEs play an important role because diet is a major source of these pro-inflammatory AGEs. Indeed, cutting down on these dietary glycotoxins reduces the inflammatory response, but the “argument is often made that stewed chicken would be less tasty than fried chicken…” Why not have your KFC and eat it, too? Just take an AGE-absorption blocking drug every time you eat it to reduce the absorption of the toxins. What’s more, it actually lowers AGE blood levels. This oral absorbent drug, AST-120, is just a preparation of activated charcoal, like what’s used for drug overdoses and when people are poisoned. I’m sure if you took some ipecac with your KFC, your levels would go down, too.

There’s another way to reduce absorption of AGEs, and that’s by reducing your intake in the first place. It’s simple, safe, and feasible. The first step is to stop smoking. The glycotoxins in cigarette smoke may contribute to increased heart disease and cancer in smokers. Then, decrease your intake of high-AGE foods, increase your intake of foods that may help pull AGEs out of your system, like mushrooms, and eat foods high in antioxidants, like berries, herbs, and spices. “Dietary AGE intake can be easily decreased by simply changing the method of cooking from a high dry heat application to a low heat and high humidity…” In other words, move away from broiling, searing, and frying to more stewing, steaming, and boiling.

What we eat, however, may be more important than how we cook it. At 4:00 in my video, I include a table showing the amounts of AGEs in various foods. For instance, boiled chicken contains less than half the glycotoxins of roasted chicken, but even deep-fried potatoes have less than boiled meat. We can also eat foods raw, which doesn’t work as well as for blood pudding, but raw nuts and nut butters may contain about 30 times less glycotoxins than roasted, and we can avoid high-AGE processed foods, like puffed, shredded, and flaked breakfast cereals.

Why does it matter? Because study after study has shown that switching to a low-AGE diet can lower the inflammation within our bodies. Even just a single meal high in AGEs can profoundly impair our arterial function within just two hours of consumption. At 4:54 in my video, you can see the difference between a meal of fried or broiled chicken breast and veggies compared with steamed or boiled chicken breast and veggies. Same ingredients, just different cooking methods. Even a steamed or boiled chicken meal can still impair arterial function, but significantly less than fried or broiled.

“Interestingly, the amount of AGEs administered [to subjects] during the HAGE [high-AGE] intervention was similar to the average estimated daily intake by the general population,” who typically follow the standard American diet. This is why we can decrease inflammation in people by putting them on a low-AGE diet, yet an increase in inflammation is less apparent when subjects switch from their regular diet to one high in AGEs. Indeed, they were already eating a high-AGE diet with so many of these glycotoxins.

Do we have evidence that reducing AGE intake actually helps with PCOS? Yes. Within just two months, researchers found differences from subjects’ baseline diets switched to a high-AGE diet and then to a low-AGE diet, with parallel changes in insulin sensitivity, oxidative stress, and hormonal status, as seen at 5:54 in my video. The take-home learning? Those with PCOS may want to try a low-AGE diet, which, in the study, meant restricting meat to once a week and eating it only boiled, poached, stewed, or steamed, as well as cutting out fast-food-type fare and soda.

What if instead of eating steamed chicken, we ate no meat at all? Rather than measuring blood levels, which vary with each meal, we can measure the level of glycotoxins stuck in our body tissues over time with a high-tech device that measures the amount of light our skin gives off because AGEs are fluorescent. And, not surprisingly, this turns out to be a strong predictor of overall mortality. So, the lower our levels, the better. The “one factor that was consistently associated with reduced [skin fluorescence]: a vegetarian diet.” This “suggests that a vegetarian diet may reduce exposure to preformed dietary AGE…potentially reduc[ing] tissue AGE,” as well as chronic disease risk


What’s so great about antioxidants? See my videos:

Just how many antioxidants do we need? Check out:

For a few simple tips on how to quickly boost the antioxidant content of your food with herbs and spices, see my video Antioxidants in a Pinch.

I touched on the benefits of spearmint tea for PCOS in Enhancing Athletic Performance with Peppermint. Another sorely under-recognized gynecological issue is endometriosis, which I discuss in How to Treat Endometriosis with Seaweed.

Because of AGEs, I no longer toast nuts or buy roasted nut butters, which is disappointing because I really enjoy those flavors so much more than untoasted and unroasted nuts. But, as Dr. McDougall likes to say, nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. For more on why it’s important to minimize our exposure to these toxic compounds, 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: