With growing concerns about rice containing potentially harmful levels of arsenic, the US Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports both released lab analyses last Wednesday detailing how much arsenic is found in rice and rice products. Both reports — which analyzed 200 samples of brown and white rice, rice cereals, rice cakes, and rice milk — found that many brands contain more arsenic in a single serving than what the Environmental Protection Agency allows in a quart of drinking water.
While the FDA said its data were “consistent” with those of Consumer Reports, the federal agency declined to name specific brands in its report and how much arsenic each contained. FDA officials also told consumers not to alter their eating habits.
“Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains — not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg said in a statement.
Exposure to high levels of arsenic can raise a person’s risk for cancer and heart disease, and young children who ingest too much may have lower IQs and poorer intellectual function, but food scientists don’t know whether the small amounts found in rice and other foods such as apple juice and cereal bars lead to long-term health consequences as the element accumulates in the body over time.
Studies have also demonstrated that the inorganic type of arsenic poses more problems than the organic type, but a maximum limit for both types of arsenic hasn’t been established for foods.
That could be coming in the future, Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said in an interview, but the FDA needs to “do its homework to collect the science.” The agency plans to analyze arsenic levels in an additional 1,000 rice food samples over the next three months and will conduct risk analyses to predict health effects posed by inorganic arsenic based on typical amounts eaten by Americans.
“No one wants arsenic in food,” said Taylor. “We’re engaged with the food industry and are looking at ways to reduce arsenic.”
Consumer Reports underscored the urgency of the problem and said the government can’t afford to wait much longer before setting limits on arsenic in food. The group analyzed federal data and found that those who consume rice regularly have arsenic levels that are 44 percent higher than those who don’t, and that certain populations such as Latinos and Asians are predominantly affected.
It also named a list of brands that contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic: “Among all tested rice, the highest levels of inorganic arsenic per serving were found in some samples of Martin Long Grain Brown rice, followed by Della Basmati Brown, Carolina Whole Grain Brown, Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown, and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Long Grain Brown,” Consumer Reports said in its analysis.
But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily choose brands based on those findings because arsenic levels can vary within a particular brand of rice depending on the soil in which the rice was grown and when it was harvested.
How should consumers respond to these two reports?
That depends on whom you ask. The FDA recommended that you hold off on changing your eating habits until research establishes the true risks of arsenic in rice, while Consumer Reports’ scientists advised limiting your intake of rice products by eating no more than three servings a week of rice cakes, rice cereal, and rice pasta, and no more than two servings a week of rice. They recommended that children avoid rice drinks, which have moderate levels of inorganic arsenic, and have just about a serving a week of other rice foods.
The USA Rice Federation, which represents rice growers, tried to allay concerns about the new analyses in a statement posted on its website. “We are aware of concerns about the level of arsenic in food, but are not aware of any established studies directly connecting rice consumption and adverse health effects,” the group said. “We agree with FDA that any limits set for arsenic in rice products should be the result of a carefully conducted risk-assessment.”