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Those who are exposed to the most arsenic in rice are those who are exposed to the most rice—like people who are eating plant-based, or gluten-free, dairy-free. So, at-risk populations are not just infants and pregnant women, but those who may tend to eat more rice. What a terrible irony for the health conscious, who are trying to avoid dairy, eat lots of whole foods, lots of brown rice—so much so that they may not only suffer some theoretical increased lifetime cancer risk, but actually suffer arsenic poisoning.
For example, this poor woman. Bad enough she had celiac disease, so had to avoid wheat, barley, and rye, but turned to so much rice she ended up with sky-high arsenic levels, and some typical symptoms: “diarrhea, headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, abnormal taste, and impaired short-term memory and concentration.” So, we, as doctors, should keep an eye out for it in those who eat lots of rice day in and day out.
In their 2012 arsenic-in-rice exposé, Consumer Reports recommended adults eat no more than an average of two servings of rice a week, or three servings a week of rice cereal or rice pasta—though in their later analysis, it looked like rice cereal and rice pasta had more; so, they dropped their recommendation to like two servings a week. And, that’s if you’re not getting arsenic from other rice sources. So, they came up with this kind of point system, so people could add up all their rice products for the week, and make sure they’re staying under seven points a week, on average. So, if your only source of rice is just rice, then they recommend no more than one or two servings, and then call it a week.
But, I recommend 21 servings of whole grains a week in my Daily Dozen. Well, get to know quinoa, or buckwheat, or millet, or oatmeal, or barley, or any of the other dozen or so common non-rice whole grains out there. They tend to have “negligible levels of [toxic arsenic].”
Rice accumulates ten times more arsenic than other grains, which helps explain why the arsenic levels in urine samples from those who eat rice tend to consistently be higher than those who do not eat rice. The FDA recently tested a few dozen quinoa samples, and most had arsenic levels below the level of detection, or just trace amounts, including the red quinoas that are my family’s favorite, which I was happy about—though there were still a few that were up around like half that of rice. But overall, quinoa averaged ten times less arsenic than rice (the toxic arsenic). So, instead of two servings a week, following the Consumer Reports recommendation, you could have 20.
So, that’s strategy #1: “Diversify the diet” and “Consider alternatives to rice,” especially for infants. Then, we can “minimize exposure,…cook[ing] rice like pasta, with plenty of extra water.” We found that ten-to-one water-to-rice seemed best, though the data suggest the rinsing they recommend here doesn’t seem to do much. We can avoid “processed…foods sweetened with brown rice syrup.” Anything else we can do at the dining room table while waiting for “[f]ederal agencies [to] establish [some] regulatory limits”?
What if you eat a lot of fiber-containing foods with your rice? Might that help bind some of the arsenic? Apparently, not. But the presence of fat did seem to have an effect—but in the wrong direction, increasing estimates of arsenic absorption, likely due to the extra bile we release when we eat fatty foods.
We know that the tannic acid in coffee, and especially tea, can reduce iron absorption, which is why I recommend to not drink tea with meals. But hey, might it also decrease arsenic absorption? Yes, by perhaps 40 plus percent. So, they suggest tannic acid might help. But, they used megadoses: 17 cups of tea worth, or that found in 34 cups of coffee; so, it isn’t really practical.
What do the experts suggest? Well, hey, “[a]rsenic levels are lower in rice from certain regions, [like] California and parts of India.” So, why don’t we blend some of that in with some of the higher arsenic rice to even things out for everybody? What?!
Another wonky, thinking outside the ricebox, idea involves an algae discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, with an enzyme that can volatize arsenic into a gas. Aha! So, let’s genetically engineer that gene into a rice plant, and they were able to get a little arsenic gas off the thing, but the rice industry is hesitant. “Posed with a choice between [genetically engineered] rice and rice with arsenic in it, consumers may decide they just aren’t going to eat any rice [at all].”
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