Monday, October 15, 2012

Arsenic in Rice?

Arsenic is a chemical element found in water, soil and air. For this reason, it is inevitably found in some foods. Human activities have added arsenic to the environment, through burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood, and through the use of arsenic compounds in pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors foods in our diet; it has analyzed arsenic levels in rice for 20 years, and has not found evidence of change in arsenic levels. However, researchers are now better able to measure whether existing levels represent more or less toxic forms of the element. It plans to complete its analysis of about 1,200 rice products (rice milk, rice cakes, infant cereal, etc) by the end of the year, and to issue guidelines.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports, published by Consumers Union, has stated that its tests of more than 60 samples of rice and rice products found inorganic arsenic, a probable human carcinogen, in most samples. Earlier this year, they had found worrisome levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices, and called on the FDA to set limits for arsenic in these juices. They are now asking the FDA to set limits for arsenic in rice.

Consumer Reports’ study found:
*White rice grown in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas had higher arsenic levels than samples from California, India, and Thailand.
*Brown rice had higher levels than white rice, comparing rice from within a tested brand.
*Infant rice cereals and drink products contained worrisome levels of arsenic.
*Groups who rely on rice as a staple, such as some Asians and Hispanics, were found to have higher arsenic levels.

Rice grown in Texas, Louisiana and other gulf coast states have high levels of arsenic because of cotton growing in times past. Arsenic pesticides were used to control the boll weevil. California rice, and Asian rice have considerably lower levels.

Consumer Reports advises that children under 5 not be given rice drinks daily. Similar advice has been given in the United Kingdom.

Consumer Reports has asked the FDA to ban the feeding of arsenic containing drugs to animals (used for growth promotion and disease prevention). The manure of these animals contains arsenic, which can be used to fertilize food crops. It also asked for a phase out of arsenic containing pesticides.

Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist, author and pediatrician at New York’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, suggests that pregnant women and babies avoid rice, or use only small amounts of California rice, or switch to other grains, such as oats or barley.

Arsenic has been implicated as a cause of skin cancer (non-melanoma), and is also related to cancers of the liver, lung, kidney and bladder. The evidence for this comes from studies in Taiwan, where well water contains high amounts of arsenic. The same is true in Bangladesh – tube wells drilled to protect the population from bacterial diarrheal disease have been found to have high levels of arsenic. This is a very serious situation in parts of India as well. Current remedial efforts include digging very deep wells, where water may have lower arsenic levels.

What can you do about arsenic in food and water? There is virtually no arsenic in Bolinas water. Call your local water department to find levels if you live elsewhere. Avoid apple and grape juice unless it is organic – even then, it’s better to eat the whole fruit. Avoid chicken, unless it is organic. Eat California rice, but don’t make it your everyday staple. Try almond milk if you usually drink rice milk. If you are avoiding gluten, try millet as a rice substitute. Millet should be rinsed first, and cooks in 20 minutes. You can make it very tasty by cooking it with onions, garlic, chopped nuts, and spices. When cooking, I always think of chef Rebecca Katz’ suggestion: FASS. F stands for a bit of fat, such as olive oil. A stands for acid – meaning a little something sour, like a squeeze of lemon. S stands for sweet – a drop of maple syrup, or pomegranate juice, or some frozen corn. S stands for salty – a pinch of salt. Put this in every dish, and you’ll love the result!

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH see more on this blog

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