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Making sense of arsenic and rice concerns

Excerpted from the MD Mama blog on Boston.com.

I’ve now read a whole lot about this whole arsenic and rice thing and I’ve decided I’m going to tell parents in my practice to cut back on the rice they give their children — and not give rice cereal to their babies at all.

And after doing some research, I think that we all need to eat less rice, especially babies and children. Which is too bad, because rice can be healthy. But as with mercury in fish, sometimes the risk of toxins start to offset the nutritional benefits.

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In case you missed it: Consumer Reports came out with a report detailing the amount of arsenic in various brands of rice and rice-based products (like cereals or rice milk). It was scary, actually. There’s an awful lot of arsenic in some of this stuff. Rice apparently absorbs arsenic more effectively than most plants, in part because it’s grown in lots of water — and a lot of the rice produced in the US is grown in places where a lot of arsenic-laden pesticide was used on cotton.

Arsenic is bad for you. It’s a poison that can kill you. In smaller amounts, it can do things like damage the brain, nerves, blood, blood vessels, heart, and skin. It can cause birth defects and cancer. While the rice producers are correct that there’s no proof that arsenic in rice has lead or will lead to health problems, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried. According to the report, if a baby eats rice cereal twice a day, which is very common, her risk of cancer doubles.

That’s why I’m going to tell parents to avoid rice cereal — it’s definitely not a risk worth taking. Besides, rice cereal is a highly refined carbohydrate that can increase the risk of obesity.

According to Consumer Reports, kids should be having no more than about one serving of rice or rice pasta a week — and the serving size is pretty small.

I’ve been telling people to eat brown rice rather than white rice because it’s healthier, because whole grains are better than refined ones — but brown rice, it turns out, has on average more arsenic than white rice. One thing you can do, though, is cook brown rice like you might cook pasta, in lots of water — and then drain the water off. That can lower arsenic levels.

Now, it’s not like rice is the only risky food out there. It’s not the only source of arsenic, either; other foods, like leafy green vegetables, juices and some seafood can contain it as well. If we were going to cut out every even slightly risky food, we wouldn’t be left with much to eat. There are toxins everywhere. But when we get information like this from a reputable source, we can’t ignore it.

Dr. Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician and Medical Communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Read her blog on Boston.com/Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @drClaire.

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