Arsenic in your rice? What you need to know

New studies from Consumer Reports and the Food and Drug Administration are fueling the debate over acceptable limits of arsenic in rice and rice products.

Late last month, the FDA released preliminary data on arsenic levels in rice — data which, by the way, was consistent with Consumer Reports research. Both agencies found significant levels of arsenic in certain varieties of rice and rice products.

But, that’s where they part ways. Consumer Reports says their findings show a real need for federal standards on arsenic. The FDA feels more research is needed before changes can be recommended regarding safe levels of arsenic in rice or any other food.

Concerned? Most people are. But before you ditch rice forever consider the facts:

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a natural element found in soil and minerals – known as inorganic arsenic. The type of arsenic found in plants and animals is called organic arsenic, which is usually less harmful than inorganic arsenic.

The inorganic forms of arsenic have been associated with long term health effects. Since both forms of arsenic have been found in soil and ground water for many years, it’s inevitable that some arsenic will be found in certain food and beverage products, including rice, fruit juices and juice concentrates.

Is there less arsenic in organic food?

Organic foods are generally thought of as healthier, but when it comes to arsenic, that is not the case. Plants, regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming methods, can absorb arsenic.

“Although some evaluations say produce which is organic is not much different from commercially grown, I generally advocate for it [organic],” says Registered Dietitian Marlisa Brown, author of Gluten-Free, Hassel-Free and Easy Gluten-Free.

Reduce your arsenic exposure

Brown agrees with the recommendations from the FDA – encouraging consumers to eat a balanced and varied diet.

“A variety of fresh fruit, veggies and grains, can ensure the most nutrients and limit over exposure from any contaminated food group,” she says.

Experiment with heritage grains

Now might be a good time to reclaim traditions from the past. Heritage grains provide an abundance of vitamins, mineral, antioxidants and fiber — all essential to good health. Moreover, eating a variety of heritage grains can minimize the potential consequences from consuming too much of any one particular grain.

Traditionally, all grains eaten were whole grains. In fact, studies show that including whole grains in the diet can significantly lower risk for chronic diseases such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory disease, high blood pressure and some cancers.

Heritage Grain Quick Tips

Amaranth is more like a seed than a true grain. It is popular in Africa and South America. Use amaranth as breakfast porridge, ground into flour for breads or muffins, and the seeds can be popped like popcorn.

Hulled barley, an ancient grain, makes a hearty addition to soups and casseroles, or as flour in bread.

Kamut is the Egyptian name for wheat. Use it as flour in baking, or cooked as a grain. Kamut has a chewy texture with a nutty flavor.

Quinoa, a South American grain cooks much like rice but faster. Quinoa is great for soups, salads, casseroles, and in any dish that calls for rice.

Sorghum is a popular gluten free whole grain that can be substituted for wheat flour in baked goods such as muffins, breads, pizza dough and cakes. It can also be eaten as a cooked cereal.

Teff an Ethiopian grain is used as porridge or to make traditional injera flatbread.

Whole corn is traditionally ground down to course bits called grits. Yes! Grits not only taste good, they are filled with whole grain goodness. This staple of the American South can be eaten at any meal of the day. Top them with onions, spices, vegetables and sauces.

If you choose to keep rice on your shopping list, cook it for safety. Rinse raw rice thoroughly before cooking. Then use a ratio of six cups water to every cup of rice for cooking and be sure to drain the excess water afterward.

“Rinsing and cooking in larger amounts of water may help,” says Brown. Research shows this method can remove about 30 percent of inorganic arsenic from the rice.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.