An increasing number of reports over the last few years have highlighted concerns about the amount of arsenic in rice and related products and the potential health implications, particularly for infants and young children.
Arsenic and health
Arsenic is a toxic substance that is naturally present in our environment and is absorbed by some food crops as they grow and so cannot be completely eliminated from the food we eat, or the water we drink.
There are two general types of arsenic compounds: organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is widely considered detrimental to health.
Studies have linked prolonged or long-term exposure with adverse health effects including the stomach, kidneys, liver, and coronary heart disease and diabetes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies arsenic as a carcinogen based on the association between long-term exposure to arsenic with skin, lung and bladder cancers.
The main sources of our exposure to arsenic are food and water, although tobacco smoke also contains arsenic. Arsenic is found in many foods including rice, fruits and vegetables. It is also found in in seafood, but this is the less toxic organic arsenic. Dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic for children under 3 years is estimated to be about 2 to 3 times that of adults.
Arsenic is known to accumulate in rice at higher levels than in other crops and is estimated to absorb up to 10 times the amount of other grains. The arsenic content in rice varies according to the type of rice, where it’s grown, how it has been processed and how it has been cooked. The maximum concentration of arsenic has been found in rice bran, so products made from this, for example rice milk, have a higher concentration.
EU states have their own rules, with national safety bodies making recommendations on certain products. In the UK, for example, the Food Standards Agency advises that toddlers and young children should not be given rice drinks as a substitute for breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk. This is because of their proportionally higher milk consumption and lower body weight compared to other consumers.
The Swedish Food Standards Agency has advised that rice cakes should not be consumed by children under 6 years.
Food experts do not consider that the arsenic exposure from eating rice and rice products a few times a week constitutes a health risk, and food-based dietary guidelines include rice as part of the recommendations within the starchy carbohydrate food group.
We do know that a healthy, balanced and varied diet is important to help ensure that we eat the full range of essential nutrients. This emphasis on a varied diet would help go some way to offset a reliance on one grain, or excess intake of any one food, and include choosing a wide variety of grains.
As long as rice, or other foods that contain rice are eaten within moderation there isn’t a problem consuming rice. As food experts have verified they do not think eating rice and rice products constitutes a health risk.
It is, however, important that we continue to follow the dietary guidelines that form part of the recommendations for safe consumption of rice.