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 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:

 

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: