Arsenic is a chemical element present in the soil, water and air. There are 2 different types of arsenic – organic and inorganic (nothing to do with farming practises). When arsenic atoms bond with carbon atoms, the arsenic is referred to as “organic”. When the arsenic atoms do not bond with carbon atoms, it is referred to as “inorganic”. Of the 2 types of arsenic, it is the inorganic that is more closely associated with adverse health outcomes. Arsenic is absorbed into plants as they grow, but some plants such as rice absorb more arsenic than others and it is the inorganic arsenic that is absorbed.
Acute arsenic exposure through contaminated water and certain industries is a major health issue around the world, but there is now also increasing concern about the effects of low dose exposure.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), rice “is a leading dietary source of inorganic arsenic”. They also state that because arsenic is naturally found in soil, it is absorbed regardless of how the crop is grown – organically or through “conventional” methods. They state that “The FDA is unaware of any data that show a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus conventionally grown rice.”
According to the American Cancer Society, arsenic is known to cause cancer. Exposure of low levels of arsenic over a longer period of time can result in irregular heartbeat, liver and kidney damage. Skin changes such as darkened patches and the appearance of thickened skin particularly on the palms and soles is a common sign of chronic arsenic exposure. According to researchers at the American Dartmouth University, long term exposure to low doses of arsenic may reduce our cells ability to function properly by changing the way they communicate. Other symptoms can include sensory peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling in extremities), headaches, drowsiness and confusion.
A recent study by The Swedish National Food Agency recommends that adults who eat rice every day should eat less. They also reported that rice cakes have the highest levels of arsenic. A child under 6 years of age who eats just 2 – 4 rice cakes a week is at risk of ingesting high levels of arsenic. For this reason, they also recommend that children under the age of 6 should not be given rice cakes.
A 2016 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association; Pediatrics showed that arsenic concentrations were twice as high in the urine of infants who ate rice than those who ate none. The highest concentrations were in babies who ate rice cereal. According to Margaret Karagas, the lead researcher on the study, “There’s a growing body of evidence that even relatively low levels of exposure can have an adverse impact on young children.”
According to a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), “Arsenic exposure during pregnancy is a particular public health concern…” They go on to say “… emerging data indicate that dietary intake of arsenic also may be substantial. Rice in particular has been implicated as a major potential route for exposure.” High levels of arsenic measured in the urine of pregnant women have been related to infant mortality, low birth weight and compromised immune function.
Through the common introduction of rice cereal to babies, it is estimated that infants ingest around 3 times more rice than adults in relation to body weight, which is why the FDA is currently researching the long term effects of arsenic ingestion. Their recommendation is to give infants a variety of different grains rather than relying solely on infant rice cereal.
So, what should we do about it? Every person is an individual, with varying levels of exposure to toxicity and varying levels of their body’s ability to break down these toxins. So there really is no “one size fits all” solution.
Rice that has been highly processed (white rice, rice cakes, rice noodles etc.) is void of nutrition and inflammatory so I am always of the opinion that in a healthy diet it shouldn’t be eaten. The adage holds true – eat whole foods only. If it comes in a packet it is not a whole food. Rice such as brown and wild rice, being less processed, is less inflammatory and more nutrient dense although it still contains high levels of arsenic.
In saying that, there are a lot of people who don’t tolerate grains at all, who get digestive symptoms and a lot of inflammation and arthritic type symptoms, so for those people eliminating rice altogether is a healthy choice. For those of you who enjoy rice and tolerate it well, stick to brown and wild rice (purely for the nutritional and less inflammatory aspects – it still contains high levels of arsenic) and lower your consumption to occasionally eating it. Avoid all processed rice such as rice biscuits, rice cakes and noodles. The mere fact that these are highly processed is enough of a reason to avoid them but they are also usually higher in arsenic.
For pregnant women I would strongly suggest that rice is consumed either not at all or very occasionally, and completely avoid the highly processed rice cakes and noodles.
For babies, avoid rice cereal and instead use alternative grains. Once again, for young children always aim to eat whole foods and make rice an occasional food rather than an every day one.
Alternatives for rice include Quinoa or cauliflower rice, or you can just serve a curry or casserole on a bed on baby spinach. Sushi rolls can be made with avocado spread over the seaweed and then your filling of choice or you can mix cauliflower rice with avocado.
Like everything in life – moderation is the key.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705