What! Arsenic In Rice...
Our expert’s take
By Joanna Sayago Golub
New tests conducted by Consumer Reports show that rice and rice products – such as hot and cold cereals, crackers, pasta and drinks – contain enough arsenic that the magazine is recommending consumers limit how much rice they eat.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently conducting its own study, testing more than 1000 rice and rice products for arsenic content. Its initial test results are similar to Consumer Reports’, but at the moment, the FDA is not recommending consumers change their rice consumption. The organisation plans to finish its study and release its complete findings by the end of the year.
White and brown rice are easily digested carbohydrate sources for runners. Given the important role of rice in many runners’ diets, we talked with Runner’s World’s nutrition expert Liz Applegate, Ph.D., to make sense of the news.
Runner’s World: What exactly is arsenic and why is there so much concern around it?
Liz Applegate: Arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral found in rocks and water that ultimately gets into the soil and water supply. This mineral has always been a part of our environment, and some areas around the world have higher levels due to the composition of the rocks. Because of this, trace amounts of arsenic can be found in virtually all drinking water and foods. Much of the arsenic that does enter the food and water supply is easily excreted from the body within a day or so and does not accumulate, which is the main concern with other contaminants such as lead.
RW: But not all arsenic is naturally occurring. It used to be used in some pesticides and is still emitted from coal power plants – is that at play here?
LA: Some of the arsenic in soil and water does come from emissions from fossil fuel burning and the use of this mineral in fertilisers and pesticides. The overall contribution of arsenic from these sources has been declining over the years as use of arsenic-containing compounds by industries has decreased. Nonetheless, most of the arsenic found in foods and water comes from the natural contribution from the earth’s crust – rocks.
RW: What health risk does dietary exposure to arsenic pose?
LA: Currently there is no evidence that dietary arsenic poses any health risk. That is, there are no research studies that show eating rice or other foods with arsenic pose a health risk, such as increased cancer risk. There are scientific studies to show that drinking water with very high levels of arsenic (which naturally occur in water depending upon geographical location) over many years may increase the risk of cancer. But foods such as rice containing trace amounts of arsenic have not been shown to present health risks.
RW: A few months ago apple juice was in the news because tests found it contained high levels of arsenic. Now we hear that rice and rice products do, too. Are there other foods we should be concerned about?
LA: Since arsenic is naturally occurring in water and soil it's no surprise that you will find arsenic in other foods. Seafood such as crab, oysters and shrimp, for example, contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, and many different types of produce, such as grapes and lettuce, typically contain this mineral. A key point to remember is that you eat many different types of foods that supply needed nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and your relative exposure to arsenic is a compilation of eating an array of foods, rather than eating just one food all the time.
RW: Can you limit your exposure to arsenic by choosing organic rice and rice products?
LA: No, both organic and conventionally grown rice have arsenic. This is because rice is grown in water, and the plants absorb arsenic (along with other naturally occurring minerals) found in the water and surrounding soil. Brown rice tends to be higher in arsenic than white because the mineral travels to the outer layers of the rice kernel; these layers are removed when processing white rice. Rice grown in regions where the water and soil are low in arsenic will contain lower amounts, which is why some brands of rice were reported by Consumer Reports to have lower amounts of this mineral.
RW: Based on their findings, Consumer Reports recommends limiting your consumption of rice and rice products. At the moment, the FDA is not recommending consumers change their consumption. Why is that, and what’s your recommendation?
LA: Consumer Reports is not basing their recommendation upon science that shows arsenic in foods has a detrimental effect. Certainly arsenic in high amounts should be avoided and we know that dangerously high levels in water can be carcinogenic. The FDA is compiling the information about what is in our food supply, what is the science behind arsenic, and what potential health risks may exists – and then they’ll make a statement setting limits.
My advice is for runners to eat a variety of carbohydrate sources – rice, wheat, corn, quinoa, barley, wild rice, for example – to supply needed energy to fuel runs, as well as other key nutrients, such as B vitamins and minerals like zinc and magnesium, which are also needed for top performance. Keep eating rice and rice products as well as other foods you know you need for good health, including fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.
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