Arsenic in Rice: Should You Be Worried?

The short answer is “No”. The long answer tells you why.

Stop The Panic!

This week, I got an email from a friend of mine titled “UGH! Now What!!!!!????”. In it, she linked a recent article about arsenic in rice. She was worried because her family eats a lot of brown rice and she had a big sigh as she was trying to make sense of it all. I completely understood her frustration. Another food we’re not supposed to eat. What’s Next?!?

I replied with a “You can still eat brown rice - don't worry - and brown rice is still better for you than white rice.” I answered a few question, and included some links for more research (people should always make their own informed decisions). I realized, however, that this conversation should really be happening online so that others can benefit. So…here goes. We’ll cover it in this order:


Is There Arsenic In Rice?

Yes, there is arsenic in rice…and in vegetables, and fruit, and other grains, and water, and soil, and…yeah, you get the idea. Arsenic is found naturally in our water and soil. Plants absorb this as they grow. Rice is grown in water, so more is found in that particular grain.

The presence of arsenic isn’t (or shouldn’t be) alarming. It’s an element found almost everywhere, including our own bodies. The question comes in with the amount.


Is The Amount Of Arsenic In Rice Dangerous?

It depends on whom you ask. Consumer Reports says “yes”. The World Health Organization (WHO) says “no”. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says “no”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the provisional maximum tolerable daily intake (PMTDI) of inorganic arsenic at 2 mcg/kg of bodyweight per day. Let’s break that down for you.

  • The Dose Makes The Poison Quote50kg = 110lbs, so a 110 lb. person’s maximum tolerable intake of inorganic arsenic would be 100 mcg per day.
  • The FDA lists the average brown rice tested at 7.2 mcg per 1/2 cup serving.
  • This is not a significant source of arsenic to be concerned about for adults.
“The dose makes the poison” -Paracelsus (1493-1591), founder of toxicology

Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology (the study of the adverse effects of chemicals on living organisms), introduced the idea that substances that are considered toxic at large doses can often have a positive effect in small doses. Conversely, an ordinarily harmless substance can be deadly if over-consumed. Let’s explore that a little further.


Can Small Amounts Of Arsenic Be Good For You?

It would seem so. There are two very good arguments for this:

  1. Arsenic may be an essential trace element (meaning we actually need it)
  2. Exposure to small amounts of toxins educates the immune system

Arsenic: An Essential Trace Mineral

“Studies in animal species provide strong evidence that arsenic is an essential trace element...When researchers completely eliminated arsenic from the diets of animals in experiments, the animals became ill; some developed reproductive problems. The offspring of these arsenic-deprived adults were born with developmental problems. Putting a small amount of arsenic back into the animals' diets completely reversed these effects.” Darmouth

Arsenic: Educate & Build The Immune System

Dr. Henry I. Miller, in his Forbes article, Can Tiny Amounts of Poison Actually Be Good For You, discusses the increased immunity after low-level exposure to radiation.

“This phenomenon is called hormesis, a non-linear dose-response relationship in which something such as a toxic heavy metal or ionizing radiation that is harmful at moderate to high doses may actually produce adaptive beneficial effects at low doses.” Dr. Henry I. Miller

This argument is rooted in an understanding of how our immune system works.

Even though higher doses cause harm, the low-level stress caused by extremely low doses appears to trigger cellular repair and maintenance, leading to beneficial outcomes such as reduced risk of certain types of cancer in laboratory animals.” Nancy Trautmann, Ph.D.

Basically, our immune system is built by having exposure to small amounts of toxins and learning how to fight them. That's how we build immunity to something. The body has a mini battle with it and learns how to contain, eliminate and destroy it. The body stores this information (literally) and the immune system is now able to have a faster, more effective approach to managing the problem if it ever occurs again. So, exposure to small amounts of arsenic actually educates the body about the substance so that it can deal with it more effectively in the future. Check out this video for a quick and fun overview of how parts of the immune system work.

Obviously, as with all potentially toxic substances, there is a dose at which even the best trained immune system doesn’t stand a chance. However, since most of us won’t be exposed to a lethal dose of arsenic, let’s get back to the question of arsenic in rice and when you should be careful.


When To Be Careful With Arsenic in Rice Products

Again, “The dose makes the poison”. Arsenic is still toxic at certain levels, and there are two main areas of concern that you should examine when deciding about the arsenic levels in rice and whether or not they are a danger to you or a loved one. These areas are:

  1. A currently compromised immune system
  2. Portion size compared the size of the individual (mainly infants and children)

Arsenic on a Compromised Immune System

“it is important to keep in mind that a chemical that is beneficial in one way may also be damaging in others. For example, although exposure to tiny doses of a contaminant might improve immune responses in healthy adult males, that same exposure potentially could harm children, pregnant women, or people with suppressed immune systems.” Nancy Trautmann, Ph.D.

So, it might help to build your immune system...unless your immune system is already shot. Then, you should be careful about serving sizes of any substance that could cause harm to an already weak system.

Arsenic for Babies and Children

The main concern with arsenic in rice is for those infants and children that are consuming a great deal more rice based products per lb./kg. of bodyweight than adults. Between rice formulas, rice cereals, rice milk and rice snacks, some children are having rice as their main source of everything they eat.

“Dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic for children under three years old, including from rice-based foods, is in general estimated to be about 2 to 3-fold that of adults. These estimates do not include milk intolerant children substituting rice-drinks for formula or cows’ milk.” European Food Safety Authority

Rice baby formulas - 4 different brands

Again, as a reference, the provisional maximum daily tolerable intake (PMDTI) of arsenic for a six-month-old baby that weighs 16.5 lbs. (approximately 7.5 kg.) would be 15 mcg.

Mom feeding baby rice cereal

So, if you’re:

  • Immune Suppressed (elderly, sick, recovering from illness or surgery, etc.)
  • Pregnant
  • Nursing
  • Feeding an Infant or Small Child

you should examine more closely what you’re exposed to (food or otherwise). This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to make any changes at all. It simply means that you should check what you’re already getting (or feeding your young ones) and check if it’s within safe limits. This isn’t just a rice question. This applies to so many things and is an overall health question.


Is There Safer Rice With Less Arsenic?

There are a few different options for getting rice that has less arsenic. Which of these you choose will depend on your nutrition goals.

White Rice With Less Arsenic

The FDA reports that white rice has between 1/2 and 2/3rds the amount of arsenic as brown rice (depending on the variety of white rice). FDA

That does not make white rice a healthier choice, however. White rice has less arsenic than brown rice because it has less of every trace mineral. White rice is made by simply scrubbing the outer bran layer off. The bran layer is where most of the micronutrients are. If you’re looking for a simple carb to boost blood sugar, then white rice is a good option for you. If you’re looking for vitamins and minerals, then brown rice is still the healthier choice. Here's a quick video on how white rice is made:

Now, is there a safer brown rice available?

Brown Rice With Less Arsenic

There is a difference in the amount of arsenic found in rice depending on how and where it was grown.

“Inorganic arsenic occurs in nature in the soil, copper and lead ore deposits, and water, but usually in low concentrations. However, it can become more concentrated when industrial processes use it to make wood preservatives, metal compounds, or organic arsenic-containing compounds such as insecticides, weed killers, and other compounds.” Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

Though arsenic is found in the soil and water, an increased amount is found where certain pesticides and fertilizers were used. For example, you'll find that rice grown in the Southern U.S. is higher in arsenic, because it is grown in the same place cotton used to grow. The cotton farmers used arsenic-based pesticides to control boll weevils.

To be on the safe side - check where it's grown. We get the Lundberg from iHerb. They regularly take their own readings and seek to keep the arsenic low. Both their brown rice and white rice is well below the average reported by the FDA. Check out the Lundberg website to see the exact numbers.


Keeping Poison In Perspective

All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy. Paracelsus, 1567, founder of toxicology

The Dose Makes The Poison

Salt:

Too much salt is in a person’s system is known medically as hypernatremia. If hypernatremia occurs,

Salt spread out as a skull and bones to represent the idea of salt as a poison
“there is too much sodium outside the brain cells, water will flow out to right this discrepancy, causing the cells to shrink. Confusion, jitteriness, seizures, coma, and death can result if things aren’t corrected.” Sauders, 2014

Caffeine:

“The caffeine in a normal human diet does not cause illness, but just 50 times this amount could kill you.” Nancy Trautmann, Ph.D.

Spinach:

The oxalic acid found in spinach is harmless in the amounts anyone would normally eat but could lead to kidney damage or death if 10 to 20 pounds were consumed at a single sitting.” Nancy Trautmann, Ph.D.

The Body’s Ability To Filter Out Toxins

One thing that people seem to be missing from these reports about arsenic in rice is that they are testing higher doses of arsenic in people's urine - as in, they're peeing it out - getting rid of it.

“The toxicity of each type of chemical also depends on whether it gets excreted from the body or stored in the liver, kidneys, fat, or other tissues” The Dose Makes the Poison--Or Does It? Nancy Trautmann, Ph.D.

So, how toxic a substance is depends on how efficiently the body gets rid of it. This is one of those areas where a compromised immune system makes you disqualified from counting on your body’s ability to properly filter toxins. It might be able to, but you can’t be sure how efficiently it will do so. For a relatively healthy individual, however, arsenic is excreted through the urine.

“Arsenic is removed from blood very quickly...arsenic is mainly excreted from the body through urine within 1 to 2 days” CSA Illumina

Again, no matter how efficiently your body filters out toxins, there is always a dose at which it cannot keep up. Rice clearly does not contain this dose.


What You NEED To Know About Arsenic in Rice

Basics on Arsenic in Rice

  • Arsenic is a necessary element that your body needs - Dartmouth
  • Too much arsenic is toxic and can be deadly (like salt, iodine and many other substances)

Arsenic in Rice: Verdict for Adults

  • The provisional maximum tolerable daily intake (PMTDI) of inorganic arsenic is 2 mcg/kg of bodyweight per day (50kg = 110lbs, so a 110 lb. person’s maximum tolerable intake of inorganic arsenic would be 100 mcg per day) - World Health Organization (WHO)
  • The FDA lists the average brown rice tested at 7.2 mgc per 1/2 cup serving. - FDA
  • This is not a significant source of arsenic to be concerned about for adults.

Arsenic in Rice: Verdict for Children

  • Children under 3 years old generally get 2 - 3 times the exposure to inorganic arsenic as adults. - FDA
  • The provisional maximum daily tolerable intake (PMDTI) of arsenic for a six-month-old baby that weighs 16.5 lbs. (approximately 7.5 kg.) would be 15 mcg. - World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Concern comes in for rice-based infant formulas and toddler cereals, as their consumption per bodyweight might be too high. Check the amounts you are giving your child, or consider adding in some alternatives to balance the diet more.


Conclusion of The Arsenic Rice Question

You can still eat rice, and brown rice is still better for you than white rice (at least if you’re looking for more vitamins and minerals in your food…which most of us are).

If you eat a lot of rice or are feeding a lot of rice to your growing children, there are safer brands and types of rice.


What About You

Let’s learn from each other. Share with us your stories and any research you’ve found that helps us all make educated decisions.


Realated Post

Comments
Cynthia DeWitte commented on 10-Feb-2015 03:27 PM
I use Lundberg rice too. They have good products. Being a gluten free household, we use rice pasta regularly, as well as eating our fair share of brown rice with dinner.
You did a great job of putting arsenic in perspective when compared to other minerals. It is true that anything can be toxic, even water.
Natasha Renée Hayes commented on 19-Mar-2015 04:54 PM

Thank you Cynthia!

I really tried to cover all of the aspects and give the research and references behind it. It's easy to just give an off-the-cuff answer, but it takes time to show people where that answer comes from. It's also important, in seeking to assure people not to panic, that I still show them when and where they should be concerned and what better options they have available to them. Anyone who would take the time to read an article on arsenic in rice is clearly trying to look out for the health of themselves and their loved ones. It's my responsibility, in writing about such things, to give a thorough answer.

Lundberg rice is so good! I really appreciate how conscientious they are about keeping the arsenic so much lower in their rice than other brands. When companies pay attention to things like this, it makes us confident that they'll use as much carefulness for other things as well.


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