Arsenic in Rice and Brown Rice Syrup: How Dangerous Is It?

06/14/2012

Rice in jar photoThe idea of ingesting arsenic in the food supply is a scary phenomenon, especially in a seemingly healthy food like rice. It got even more heated when brown rice syrup, a staple sweetener known as a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup, turned out to be the culprit. 

A Dartmouth study found high arsenic levels in various energy, cereal, and granola bars as well as energy shot drinks. The study, led by Brian Jackson, Director of Trace Metal Analysis at Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Science, showed that rice plants take in arsenic through soil. This begs to question how arsenic is in the rice itself, especially considering that for many, a plant-based, whole foods diet centers around rice. 

But I wanted to take a closer look at arsenic. Why is it ending up in our food supply? And what’s the difference between inorganic and organic arsenic? 

How Does Arsenic Get In Our Food Supply

Arsenic ends up in our food supply because plants take it in through the soil just as they would any other soil component. Plants can’t differentiate between good and bad elements, so if it’s there, they take it in. Throughout the world you’ll also find a number of arsenic hot spots, where arsenic is more concentrated. This results from certain geologic formations in rock and soil. 

In Bangladesh there can be 20 to 30 times more arsenic in soil and drinking water than in the U.S., according to Dr James R. Coughlin, Consultant in Food, Nutritional, and Chemical Toxicology, for the USA Rice Federation. In other places it can also result from residual arsenical pesticides that’s usage has been banned in the U.S. and in other countries.

"Arsenic concentrates on the outer layer of the rice shell, which means brown rice actually holds more of it than white rice because the outer shell is processed out of white rice," says Dr. Coughlin. 

Unfortunately, that’s also where most of the nutrients are located. The bran stays intact in brown rice, so there’s more fiber as well as nutrients like magnesium and zinc. 

Rice plants photo
Photo: Medioimages/Photodisc

Inorganic Versus Organic Arsenic

"Forty-six percent of the arsenic found in the rice tested was organic, which means it cannot be absorbed into the body, so it’s urinated out," says Dr. Coughlin. Inorganic arsenic is more dangerous because the body actually absorbs it. 

When the EPA sets limits on drinking water, it considers all the other places that we take in arsenic and food is one of those places. The drinking water level is set (10 parts per billion) knowing that you’ll take in some in the foods you eat. What is safe in drinking water is what’s leftover. The arsenic that you take in through drinking water is inorganic arsenic, so the body absorbs it. 

Setting Safe Arsenic Limits in the Food Supply

The FDA is considering setting limits for arsenic in the food supply, but the larger issue becomes what kind of testing to do. It’s much less expensive to test overall arsenic and then set the level higher because it would include both inorganic and organic arsenic. Separating organic and inorganic arsenic is much more intensive, and as a result, expensive. But it’s an issue that’s currently being discussed.

The amount of arsenic absorbed in rice was nearly 50 percent organic, meaning it goes right through your system. Additionally, recently the EPA did speciation testing and an exposure assessment on 17 varieties of rice. This means they tested for both organic and inorganic arsenic. They calculated that the 95th percentile gets less than 5 micrograms per day of inorganic arsenic from rice. This means that only 5 percent of the population gets more than 5 micrograms per day from rice and most of us get less. These are the people eating way more than the U.S. average of 1/2 cup of rice per day. This 5 micrograms per day for these really high rice consumers is still only half of the safe level of arsenic allowed by EPA in 1 liter of drinking water.  

The study shows that for now, consumers shouldn’t be overly concerned with the arsenic found in rice and therefore, brown rice syrup, especially considering its overall health benefits. 

Photo: Thinkstock

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Read More: FDA Responds: How Safe Are Arsenic Levels in Apple Juice?


Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.


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