If recent media reports about arsenic in rice have made you question whether or not it's safe for you and your children to eat rice or rice products, the Food and Drug Administration has some encouraging news for you. After completing tests on more than 1,300 samples of rice and rice products to determine how much total arsenic and inorganic arsenic they contain, the FDA released a new report that concludes arsenic levels are too low to cause immediate or short-term adverse health effects.
The FDA has monitored levels of arsenic in foods since 1991. More than a year ago, they began a project in which they would test more than 1,300 samples. The FDA released a preliminary report that included findings from the first 200 samples of rice and rice products analyzed, and Consumer Reports urged the FDA to set limits after its own tests revealed sometimes worrisome amounts of arsenic in rice and rice products.
According to the FDA, arsenic naturally occurs in water, air, food, and soil. But it can also come from contamination caused by human activity—burning coal or oil, or using arsenic-containing pesticides. Although it naturally seeps into fruits, vegetables and grains, arsenic seems to contaminate rice more readily than other grains. Studies suggest that chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic (the most toxic form) increases the risk of some cancers, heart disease, and cognitive or other developmental disabilities.
Among the rice grain samples tested for inorganic arsenic, the FDA report showed that instant rice was on the low end and brown rice was on the high end. Among rice products—cereals, cakes, beverages, snack bars, and infant and toddler formulas—infant formula was on the low end and rice pasta on the high end.
Although the FDA has been monitoring levels of arsenic in foods since 1991, it seems to be ramping up its efforts to inform and protect consumers. Future plans include assessing the long term health risks associated with consuming rice and the degree to which people are exposed. The FDA also plans to work with other agencies to find ways to reduce exposure to arsenic and minimize its risks to keep the public—including those who eat a lot of rice and pregnant women and children—safe.
For many parents, knowing that there's a substance of concern—or one that can be harmful—in a frequently consumed food may be enough reason to give that food up altogether. If you feel as though you're playing it safe by avoiding rice altogether in an effort to avoid potentially unhealthy levels of arsenic in your diet or that of your child, that decision won't preclude your family from consuming a healthful and balanced diet. But I don't think you need to give up rice altogether if you choose to include it in your family's diet. In my opinion, the best way to reduce exposure to potentially harmful ingredients in foods is to follow the advice of the FDA and current dietary guidelines: to eat a well balanced diet. I also believe it's wise to mix up the foods you eat from each of the food groups. You can vary your choices daily, weekly, or monthly so that over time you get a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy and protein foods. This strategy helps you not only get a mix of nutrients, but it also limits your exposure to any nutrient or other substance that may be harmful. I eat rice—white and brown—and feed it to my children. We don't have it every day, and we usually stick to half cup and one cup portions.
If you're a new parent who's considering first foods for your infant, you can follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and consider a variety of grain cereals—rather than just rice cereal—as a first solid food. And if you want to give your children rice and rice products and, at the same time, reduce their arsenic exposure, you can choose those items that have lower levels of the substance as reported by the FDA.
My guess is that, in time, the FDA will set limits for arsenic in rice and rice products. It proposed limits for apple juice—another favorite among children—this past July. But until we know more, I suggest prudence rather than panic as the best course when it comes eating rice or foods made with it—or really any food.
What's your opinion?
Image of white, black and brown rice via Shutterstock.