In September 2012, Consumer Reports magazine found “troubling” levels of inorganic arsenic in almost every rice-containing food it tested.
Arsenic is found in a wide range of foods, including fruits and vegetables, chicken, and grains. Rice takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains do.
In the Consumer Reports tests, a quarter cup of uncooked white rice ranged from roughly 1 microgram to 7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic, while brown rice ranged from 4 micrograms to 10 micrograms. (Brown rice tends to have more arsenic than white rice because the metal concentrates in the bran.) Rice cakes ranged from 2 micrograms to 8 micrograms per serving, while hot and ready-to-eat rice cereals ranged from 2 micrograms to 7 micrograms.
Arsenic is a known human carcinogen.
“Ingestion of inorganic arsenic in drinking water can cause cancer of the skin, bladder, lung, liver, and kidney,” says Allan Smith, director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
That’s based on studies in people who were exposed to large amounts of arsenic for many years. In Bangladesh, people who drank tap water that contained 50 to 149 micrograms of arsenic per liter for 20 to 30 years, for example, were 44 percent more likely to die of cancer than those who drank water with less arsenic.
Americans are exposed to much lower levels. How concerned should we be? There isn’t enough data to set a limit on inorganic arsenic in food, says the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits the total amount of arsenic in drinking water to 10 micrograms per liter. (A liter is roughly a quart.) But some 2 percent of U.S. drinking water has more than twice that much. (Check with your water utility for arsenic levels in your community’s drinking water. To get rid of arsenic at home, you’ll need an under-the-sink reverse osmosis filter. A pitcher or faucet filter won’t do.)
Bottom Line: Consumer Reports recommends that adults eat no more than 1½ to 2 cups of cooked (brown or white) rice a week. (For arsenic levels by brand, see consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm.)
You can remove about half the arsenic in your rice by rinsing it, cooking it in six parts water to one part rice until it reaches eating texture, then pouring off the extra water.
Sources: Epidemiology 20: 824, 2009; J. Environ. Monitor. 11: 41, 2009.