Rice is an affordable and popular grain that plays a prominent role in the daily fare of millions of Americans. It is especially important in Asian, Latin, vegan, and vegetarian cuisines, and is a staple for people on gluten-free or low-FODMAP diets.
Products derived from rice, such as rice flour, rice bran, and rice syrup, are added to many processed foods, including crackers, cereals, and granola bars. Rice milk is a popular vegan alternative to animal-based milk, and rice pasta has become a welcome and convenient substitute for wheat-based pasta. Infants and young children are commonly fed rice-based cereals because they're considered low-allergenic and easy to digest.
However, research conducted over the past several years has revealed that rice has the highest concentration of arsenic compared to any other food, and rice grown in the United States has some of the highest levels of arsenic in the world. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, has long been recognized for its ability to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, as well as heart disease. An element found in the Earth's crust, arsenic is naturally present in air, soil, and water. Rice absorbs arsenic from water and soil much more effectively than most other plants. That’s due in part to how it's grown; rice is one of the only major food crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allows arsenic to be more easily taken up by the plant's roots and stored in the grains. This is true whether the rice is grown with organic or conventional farming methods.
In addition to being found in natural sources, arsenic can also occur as the result of human activity, including previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides. This is significant because much of the rice produced in the United States is grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, on land once used to grow cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades to help combat boll weevil infestations.
Surprisingly, brown rice typically contains higher amounts of arsenic than white rice because the milling process used to create white rice removes the outer layers, where much of the arsenic concentrates. Imported rice, such as white basmati rice from India, is often lower in arsenic, as is rice grown in California compared to most rice grown in Texas. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested numerous rice-based products from a variety of sources and published their findings in a detailed report: Analytical Results from Inorganic Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Sampling. However, because numerous factors can influence the arsenic concentration in rice, including soil composition, the type and brand of fertilizer used, growing practices, and water-use practices, the FDA cautions against making any blanket state-to-state or country-to-country comparisons.
Recent FDA research indicates that rinsing rice before cooking has a minimal effect on the arsenic content of the cooked grain. However, published studies, including those conducted by the FDA, show that boiling rice in excess water, and then draining the water after cooking, can decrease the arsenic content by 40 to 60 percent, depending on the type of rice. This is similar to the way pasta is prepared. However, cooking rice in this manner can significantly lower the nutritional content of enriched polished and parboiled rice, particularly the levels of folate, iron, niacin, and thiamin, since these nutrients are added to the rice during processing. But this is a good way to cook brown rice, whose superior nutritional benefits may outweigh its higher arsenic content. Here is a recipe you can try using this method.
Please know that arsenic has also been detected in drinking water and in a number of fruits and fruit juices, vegetables (such as carrots, mushrooms, peanuts, and sea vegetables), other grains, and wine, although concentrations have consistently been highest in rice. Despite this shocking information, it isn't necessary to stop enjoying rice or products made from it. Nevertheless, there are several steps you can take to avoid high intake levels of arsenic: