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brown riceBrown rice has long been regarded as one of our healthiest options when it comes to providing the carbohydrates, micro nutrients and dietary fibre that our bodies need. However, research published by Environmental Health Perspectives – a US Government publication – has highlighted the health risks of consuming brown rice by “introducing significant levels of arsenic into an individual’s diet”. And in this particular aspect, is a less healthy option than processed white rice.

So what exactly is the issue?
In one word – arsenic – a naturally occurring poisonous compound that, over time, builds up in our bodies and can cause serious illness or even death. Arsenic occurs in both organic and inorganic form, the latter being significantly more toxic. According to the UK Food Standards Agency, rice can contain unsafe levels of arsenic, especially the inorganic form. Arsnenic in the body can cause cancer of the lungs, kidneys, bladder and skin. Long-term exposure can also lead to problems in the digestive system, manifested as vomiting, damage to red blood cells, liver damage and brain damage.

Arsenic in the food chain
All foods contain a measurable level of arsenic because it is present naturally in the environment, however, there is clear evidence that rice is more prone to absorbing a much higher level of arsenic than other major cereal crops such as wheat and oats. One of the reasons cited, is because it is grown in water rather than in dry soil and this aids absorption into the plant. Water used to irrigate the rice fields can also contain high levels of arsenic from pollution due to human activity, for example waste from mining and other industrial activities, use of coal and spreading of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides

Food posing a health risk
Many processed rice-based products that we might readily assume to be healthy options also contain arsenic. These include breakfast cereals, rice milk, rice crackers, cereal bars and, most concerning of all, baby foods. Research by Jackson et al (2012) discovered arsenic levels 20 times higher in baby formulas containing brown rice syrup than those that contained alternative sweeteners.

White versus brown rice
Many health conscious people will automatically choose brown rice over its white counterpart. It seems to make sense to choose the unprocessed, whole grain. Its high fibre helps maintain our digestive systems. As a slow-release sugar it is less likely to cause a spike in our insulin levels and it is high in minerals such as selenium. However, according to Jackson et al (2012) it contains more highly toxic inorganic arsenic that white rice. The explanation is that brown rice’s aleurone layer – the husk – retains inorganic arsenic before it passes into the grain. For white rice the husk is removed and the arsenic along with it.

Reducing the risk from arsenic
There are some very easy steps you can take to reduce your intake. 
A recent BBC television programme, Trust me I’m a Doctor, suggests that adults should limit their rice intake rice to two or three times a week and no more than 100g per day. For processed rice products, such as crackers, the limit should be 70g. You should also avoid giving very young children rice milk as an alternative to milk.

Preparation of rice is key and can reduce the arsenic you serve at the table by over 80%. Soaking the rice overnight before cooking releases the arsenic into the water, which can then be drained off. When cooking the rice, cover it with a least five times as much water. This method of using an excess of water is traditionally how rice is cooked in many Eastern countries. However, many Western recipes state using just double the amount of water to rice, which means, of course, that all the water into which the arsenic has been released is absorbed back into the rice as it cooks and expands. The message is simple; continue to eat rice but in moderation and cook it using lots of water.

Brian P. Jackson, Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Karagas, Tracy Punshon, and Kathryn L. Cottingham, Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup, Environmental Health Perspectives (Online 16 February 2012)