Rice is a staple food for more than half of the world’s population. This grain is an important part of cultural cuisines throughout Asia, parts of Africa, and Latin America. Since rice is relatively inexpensive, it is an essential contributor to the nutritional intake of many populations.
Whole grain rice has far more nutritional value than refined white rice. Whole grain rice is typically brown, but can be found in a variety of colors, including shades of black, purple, and red. Whole grain rice has all three components: the germ, endosperm, and bran. The bran and germ together provide fiber and micronutrients, including B vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (beneficial plant-based compounds that support human health).
By contrast, white rice has been highly processed to remove the bran and germ (two out of three edible components of rice), leaving only the endosperm, or the starchy part of the grain. Therefore, it is commonly recommended to choose whole grain rice more often than white rice as part of a healthy diet.
But what about arsenic in rice?
Unfortunately, most rice has been found to be contaminated with the heavy metal arsenic. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), arsenic contamination has been found in both organic and conventional rice. Arsenic also contaminates many products that contain rice-based ingredients (such as cereals, rice flour, sweeteners, imitation meats, rice cakes, pasta, protein bars, etc.).
According to the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, growing rice plants take in more arsenic from the soil than do other grains. Arsenic can accumulate in soil from irrigation water, industrial pollution, and use of arsenic-based farming chemicals (such as arsenic-based pesticides). Although arsenic-based pesticides have been banned, arsenic is still present in soils where these chemicals were commonly used.
According to the EWG, heavy metals—including arsenic, cadmium, and lead–are also naturally present in water and soil. The arsenic concentrations in rice can differ depending on various factors including cultivation methods, processing, country of production, and use of certain microbes, fertilizers, and enzymes in the soil. It should be noted that organic rice contains no less arsenic than rice that is conventionally grown.
Arsenic, Rice, and Human Health: Should you be concerned?
The short answer is yes, we should be concerned about arsenic exposure from rice consumption. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated arsenic as a human carcinogen that may increase cancer risk. Long-term exposure to arsenic has been strongly associated with gastrointestinal effects, anemia, peripheral neuropathy, hyperpigmentation, liver and kidney damage.
Higher rice consumption has been associated with increased risk of certain chronic conditions, including type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, skin lesions, and certain cancers, including skin cancers and bladder cancer. Furthermore, regular arsenic exposure can increase risk for other cancers, including lung cancer.
Maternal rice consumption during pregnancy has been associated with infant arsenic concentration, indicating that exposure to arsenic in the diet during pregnancy also exposes the developing fetus to excess arsenic. Researchers at Dartmouth medical school found that pregnant women who ate as little as half cup of rice per day had high levels of arsenic in their urine.8
In addition, several studies have found an association between arsenic consumption and increased risk of diabetes mellitus.
What you can do to reduce your arsenic exposure?
We do not recommend cutting rice out of your diet completely because of the potential arsenic exposure, given that rice provides many essential nutrients. Avoiding rice isn’t feasible for many individuals around the world, especially in lower income populations, who rely heavily on this staple food.
Additionally, rice is an essential part of many cultural food traditions, and is valued for more than just its nutritional content. For many, it provides not only nourishment, but also a sense of connection, tradition, enjoyment, pleasure, and comfort.
Here are some things that you can do to reduce your exposure to arsenic from rice in your diet:
- Read ingredient labels to avoid or limit processed food ingredients that contain rice. These foods may include rice flour, rice bran, and rice syrups commonly added to crackers, pasta, imitation meats, plant-based milks, granola bars, and rice-based cereals. This also includes products that have rice syrup as a sweetener (commonly found in processed foods such as cereal bars).
- Diversify the grains in your diet. This is one of the most important things that you can do to reduce exposure to arsenic in your diet. Varying your diet with other whole grains that are not contaminated with arsenic is a great way to reduce your arsenic exposure. Choose other whole grains lower in arsenic, such as oats, barely, farro, couscous, bulgur wheat, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa.
- Limit your rice consumption. Diversifying your diet with other whole grains as mentioned above is a great way to start to limit your rice intake. Checkout the resource table included in this article by Consumer Reports to learn more about recommended limits on daily and weekly servings of rice products.
Choose basmati rice from California, India, or Pakistan. According to Consumer Reports, basmati rice grown in these areas is often lower in arsenic than rice grown in other parts of the world and other parts of the United States. Sushi rice grown in the United States has also been found to have lower levels of arsenic compared to sushi rice grown in other areas.
Rice grown in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and other U.S. states (especially central regions of the United States) has been found to have the highest levels of arsenic. Avoid rice grown in these areas, whenever possible. I recommend the brand Lundberg Family Farms, producer of organic rice and rice products. Their rice is grown in California and they routinely test for arsenic. (To learn more about this, please visit: Arsenic Testing Results | Lundberg Family Farms).
- Avoid rice milk, particularly for children under the age of five.
- Rinse rice before cooking. This can help reduce arsenic levels.
- Cook rice in extra water. Research has found that you can significantly reduce the arsenic in rice by boiling the rice with extra water (such as the way you would cook pasta), and discarding the extra water once the rice is cooked. Researchers have used the ratio of 6 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice. Cooking rice with extra water may reduce up to 40 to 60 percent of the arsenic content!
- Ensure your drinking water is not contaminated with arsenic. Unfortunately, tap water throughout the U.S. has been found to be contaminated with arsenic. A great resource to assess if arsenic and other contaminants have been found in your tap water includes the EWGs Tap Water Database. You can also use EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide to learn more about the best water filter option to reduce the arsenic in your water. If you have well water, the EWG recommends you get your well tested to assess for arsenic contamination. According to the FDA, the best time for testing wells is in the spring or early summer. Here is a resource for more information on well water testing.
- Avoid giving infants rice cereal. Unfortunately, infant rice cereals are no exception to the concern of arsenic contamination. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding giving infants rice cereal as their first solid food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that parents vary the grains in infant diets (including oat, barley, and multi-grain cereal), and not rely on rice as the sole type of cereal.
White rice vs. brown rice and arsenic exposure: Is there a difference?
White rice (such as white basmati, jasmine, and pre-cooked instant rice) has been found to have lower concentrations of arsenic when compared to brown rice or whole grain rice. This is partly due to the fact that arsenic accumulates in rice bran, which is removed during the processing of rice to make white rice. However, it is not recommended to choose white rice over brown rice solely to reduce arsenic exposure, given the beneficial nutrients found in whole grain rice when compared to white rice.
It is important to reduce rice consumption to avoid consuming high levels of arsenic in your diet. Instead of cutting rice completely out of your diet, start by being more mindful of how much rice – including rice-based ingredients commonly found in processed foods – you consume regularly. Buy rice types known to contain less arsenic, and use cooking methods that can reduce arsenic levels. Instead of relying solely on rice, vary your grains to include other whole grains, and aim to eat more whole foods, since many processed foods contain rice-based ingredients.