Doctor’s Tip: Arsenic in rice
Oh no, not another food we have to worry about. When Dr. Fuhrman spoke in Carbondale on April 6, he mentioned concerns about arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust and is present in our water and our atmosphere. Low levels occur in all animals, fish and plants.
Arsenic is present in higher levels in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants, fracking and mining sites, and treated lumber. Arsenic was used years ago in pesticides to kill boll weevils that damaged crops such as cotton in the Southeast U.S. and Texas — many of these fields are now used to grow rice. It is still used in food and medications given to chickens in factory farms, and is present in chicken manure — often used in fertilizer applied to crops.
In the environment, arsenic combines with oxygen, chlorine and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. In plants and animals it combines with hydrogen and oxygen to form organic (a chemical term in this case) arsenic compounds. The inorganic arsenic compounds are the ones that we worry about.
Very low levels of this natural element in humans — especially the “organic” form — do not cause harm, but high levels do. Women with high levels of arsenic are more apt to have miscarriages and infants with low birth rates and lower IQs. High arsenic levels in adults are associated with DNA damage, leading to increased rates of lung, liver, skin and bladder cancer. Higher rates of diabetes and kidney and cardiovascular disease occur as well. Symptoms of high arsenic levels include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, abnormal taste, decreased short term memory and difficulty concentrating.
The FDA has set a maximum level of 1 ppb (part per billion) for arsenic in the water we drink, but has not set a level for arsenic in food — due to pressure from the rice industry (money often wins out over human health). Unfortunately, rice has worrisome levels of arsenic, even if it is raised by organic methods.
Rice, other than white rice — which is processed — is a whole grain, and therefore has several health benefits. Black rice has the most nutrients, followed by red rice, and then brown rice. Most — but not all — of the arsenic in rice is in the part that is removed in processing to white, so white rice has less arsenic than the other varieties. Arsenic dissolves in water, and most rice is grown in fields with standing water. Rice grown in Texas and the Southeast U.S. has significantly higher levels of arsenic than that grown in California. Arsenic content can be lowered by cooking rice with 10 parts water to 1 part rice, and removing the remaining water after cooking.
Here are the take-home messages about rice:
• Other grains such as quinoa, rye and barley have much lower arsenic levels than rice, so consider eating them instead.
• Pregnant women should avoid rice.
• Infants and young children (less than 6 or so) should avoid all rice products, including rice cereal, rice-based toddler formula, and rice-based snacks.
• Consumer Reports recommends that adults should not eat more than two servings of rice a week.
• Stick to black, red or brown rice, where you are at least getting some nutrients, that seem to cancel out the harmful effects of the arsenic.
• Only buy rice raised in California.
• Avoid items containing brown rice syrup (it’s mainly sugar anyway).
• Avoid rice products such a Rice Krispies, rice-containing breakfast bars, rice milk.
• Avoid other products known to have high arsenic content, such as hijiki seaweed and apple and grape juice (avoid fruit juices anyway, because they are basically sugar water).
It’s frustrating to learn that in our polluted world, there are concerns about rice — a staple for over 50 percent of people in the world. Rice grown in high-arsenic fields doesn’t grow well — rather than taking measure to reduce the arsenic in the fields and in the rice, the rice industry has responded to the arsenic problem by developing arsenic-resistant rice plants. Take out your frustration by putting pressure on elected officials to tighten regulations on industries that contribute to high arsenic levels. For more information, go to Dr. Greger’s nutritionfacts.org and search “arsenic in rice.”
Retired physician Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is author of new book “Enjoy Optimal Health, 98 Health Tips From a Family Doctor,” available on Amazon and in local bookstores. Profits go towards an endowment to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to add prevention and nutrition to the curriculum. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, diabetes reversal, nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his column, email email@example.com.
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