CBS News reported that Consumer Reports found significant levels of arsenic in apple juice last year, and now, the magazine has a new study, showing many brands of rice also contain the toxin. More worrisome, high arsenic levels were detected in infant cereals, typically consumed between 4 and 12 months of age.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine warns that arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life.
Arsenic causes lung, skin and bladder cancer. Dr. Landrigan adds that arsenic is also very harmful to babies’ brain development. If a baby is exposed to arsenic in the womb because the mother is eating arsenic or if a baby ingests arsenic in the first months of life in cereal, rice milk or other food, the arsenic could interfere with brain development, reduce the child’s intelligence, and cause behavioral problems.
The arsenic enters into the rice when it is grown. Rice with the highest levels of arsenic is from Texas and Louisiana, and along the Gulf coast where fields were used to grow cotton a century ago. “When there was cotton there they had to treat the cotton with arsenic pesticides to control the bowl weevil,” he said. “Now a century later, that arsenic is still in the soil, the rice is very effective at pulling it out of the soil in and it concentrates in the rice.”
Consumer Reports specified “white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which account for 76 percent of domestic rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere. In addition, within any single brand of rice we tested, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were always higher for brown rice than for white; (and) people who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not, according to our analysis of federal health data.”
Landrigan recommended in the coming months and years that parents avoid rice altogether (including rice flour and rice syrup – common ingredients in baby food products as well as gluten-free foods,) or at least rice that was grown in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri. “Stay with California rice, stay with Asian rice or when in doubt go with barley, go with oatmeal,” he said. “The smart thing to do is to be concerned and not do it. … Just avoid the rice.”
Consumer Reports recommends babies’ diets should switch out rice cereals for those made of wheat (can be difficult to digest,) oatmeal, or (non-GMO) corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic, according to federal information.
Asked about adults eating rice, Landrigan said it’s smart to limit the amount of rice you eat, but that you don’t have to cut it out entirely. He added brown rice often contains more arsenic than white rice because it contains the plant’s shells.
The FDA has released a statement on arsenic, saying, “Based on the currently available data and scientific literature the FDA does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.” They do suggest consumers “thoroughly rinsing rice until the water is clear (four to six changes of water) reduced the total arsenic content by up to approximately 25-30 percent.”
Asked about the difference between his statements that warn against rice and the FDA’s that do not, Landrigan said, “(The FDA) are doing the right thing by saying they are doing a study and they will get there. In the meantime parents, grandparents, consumers have to be intelligent. … I’m a pediatrician dealing with parents and babies one at a time. And the advice I’m going to be giving parents in my practice is avoid rice.” It should be noted that it took 2 years for the FDA to set new limits on arsenic in apple juice, matching the limits currently in place for drinking water.
Brands with the highest levels of arsenic included Della Basmati Brown, Everyday Value Long Grain Brown (Whole Foods,) Carolina Whole Grain Brown, Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice Cereal (for babies,) and Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown.
The rice product brands with the least arsenic per serving (under 100 ppb but still far over the limit set by the EPA for water of .010 parts per million (10 parts per billion ) were
- Lundberg California White Basmati from California followed by
- Trader Joe’s White Basmati From India, then
- Annie Chun’s Maifun Rice Noodles,
- Cream of Rice hot cereal, and
- Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice (for babies,)
The only rice product with “acceptable” levels of arsenic, was rice vinegar, at 4.4ppb.
For the complete Consumer Reports chart of arsenic levels per brand of foods, click here.