Time to Rethink Rice? Arsenic means "first food" may not be so safe

arsenic in riceRice is known by nutritionists as a “first food.” Easily digested and bland, it is often the first solid food a baby receives. Prior to that, babies may be exposed to rice starch and brown rice syrup in infant formulas, which use the grain as an ingredient digestible by infants with lactose or gluten intolerance.

Rice is also first in the world in other ways. The subject of myth, it is part of the creation story of Burma, in which humankind sprang from the center of the earth with grains of rice in hand, ready to begin cultivation. Folklore on the island of Bali tells us that rice was a gift from the gods. Chinese mythology says that the few grains of rice that remained after a mythic flood provided the only sustenance that could grow in watery fields. In the etymology of some Asian languages, the word for rice is the same as the word for food.

Rice is the grain eaten by more people worldwide than any other. It is farmed on every continent. Some cultures serve rice three times a day. In the United States, it is central to the agriculture of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and California.

It also contains arsenic. Some consumer groups are urging the U.S. government to set standards through the Food and Drug Administration for acceptable levels of arsenic in food. A naturally occurring element, arsenic is found in soil, air and water, and there are government maximums for acceptable trace levels in drinking water. But there is currently no U.S. standard for arsenic in food.

“We don’t know the effect of eating the amount of arsenic that happens to be in rice products for kids,” says Dr. Jerome Paulson, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health.

Long-term exposure, he says, is “certainly associated with adverse outcomes.”

What’s Wrong with Eating Arsenic

Arsenic is a known carcinogen, primarily affecting the bladder, prostate, kidneys, liver, lungs and skin. Used for millennia in the making of everything from bronze to glass, in the modern era, its toxicity has made it applicable as a preservative for lumber, a pesticide and, during World War II, a chemical warfare agent. Residue from spraying cotton fields for boll weevils in the South is the likely culprit for arsenic levels in rice now grown in southern states, which accounts for 76% of all rice grown in the U.S.

In studies now underway at two U.S. universities and a medical center, children ages seven through nine are being followed to determine the effect of arsenic exposure from agricultural and in-home pesticides. Through the University of California at Berkeley, children of farm workers in the Salinas Valley are being watched for the cumulative effect of arsenic, which has seeped into groundwater from chemical pesticide applications on southern California fields. Alternately, researchers at Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York are tracking urban kids for risk from pesticide exposure in buildings treated for roaches, mice and rats.

Paulson suggests that it is the physiology of the rice plant that makes it so susceptible to arsenic. Because it is grown in water and saturated at the root level, “rice more avidly binds to arsenic in soil,” he says.

Keeping Worries in Check

The USA Rice Federation, based outside Washington, D.C., stresses the health benefits of rice. “Rice is nutrient-rich and contains over 15 vitamins and minerals. Populations that eat the most rice are often the leanest and among the healthiest in the world,” the federation posts on a website link entitled, “Arsenic in Rice.” Additionally, rice is naturally high in folic acid, niacin, thiamin and iron, is fat-free and has just 100 calories per half-cup, the site says.

The federation adds that arsenic is everywhere in nature: in air, in water and in the ground. And not all arsenic is poisonous. Naturally occurring, organic arsenic passes through the body without ill effect. It is inorganic arsenic that is toxic.

Arsenic in rice concentrates in the hull, making brown rice more problematic than white. And it is possible to consume arsenic from rice without eating a grain, because syrup made from brown rice hulls sweetens a range of products.

Arsenic test kits that range in price from under $20 to nearly $200, are available online. However, they test for arsenic in water, not food.

Paulson says the American Academy of Pediatrics may change its recommendations regarding rice, which is part of an age-old medical regimen for children with tummy troubles. Every mother knows the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce and toast that is fed to children with diarrhea or stomach bugs. Paulson says that, contrary to the age-old wisdom, most kids can be “fed through” their illness, eating whatever appeals to their palate.

The BRAT diet is “more tradition than science,” he says. “A lot of medical wisdom is not really so wise.”