Arsenic levels were tested in 5,800 rice samples from 25 countries.The arsenic found in five servings of rice a week poses a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk. What did the rice industry have to say about that? When the story first broke in the media that U.S. rice had some of the highest arsenic levels in the world, the USA Rice Federation said, “Enough nonsense about arsenic already!” in the August 9, 2005, issue of USA Rice Daily, its daily newsletter. The study, in its mind, was “not only inaccurate in the highest degree, but also maliciously untrue.” One of the researchers responded, “By not addressing this problem [of arsenic] that has been ignored for decades, the U.S. cotton-belt rice industry is doing itself an injustice. “Had the problem been addressed in the past, given that it is well known that arsenic in paddy soils was a problem in the U.S….safe soils would have been identified and low grain arsenic rice varieties developed.” Instead, arsenic-resistant varieties have been developed that build up excessive levels of arsenic without dying themselves. I discuss arsenic levels in rice in my video Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?.
Not all rice producers have been so dismissive, though. After a subsequent Consumer Reports exposé, one rice company detailed “how it is taking matters into its own hands.” Lundberg Farms started testing hundreds of samples of its rice to share the results with the FDA. “We’re committed to providing safe food,” said the CEO, “to really listening to our consumers, and dealing with this problem very openly….” Lundberg Farms isn’t just sharing its results with the FDA, but with everyone.
If you visit its website or go to 1:37 in my video, you can see it apparently followed through on its testing promise for its brown rice. Lundberg Farms use parts per million (ppm) instead of parts per billion (ppb) to make it look better than it is, but compared with the average U.S. brown rice level of 154 ppb, Lundberg does do better. In fact, at 80 ppb, its aromatic brown rice, presumably its brown basmati and brown jasmine, averages less than national white rice levels, as do, apparently, Lundberg’s red and black rices, at 90 ppb. In fact, none of its samples even reached the average U.S. brown rice level.
Consumer Reports found most other brands to be pretty comparable to the U.S. average arsenic levels in brown rice, as you can see at 2:15 in my video, including Uncle Ben’s and Walmart’s Great Value brand. Whole Foods, however, scored the worst with its 365 Everyday Value long grain brown rice, about a third higher than these others and exceeding the national average.
In the largest review to date, based on 5,800 rice samples from 25 countries, the highest total arsenic average came from the United States. U.S. studies averaged overall about double that of rice out of Asia, with the high levels in the United States blamed on “the heavy [historical] use of arsenic-based pesticides.” But arsenic levels were not the same across the United States. Yes, U.S. rice averages twice the arsenic of Asian rice and nearly all rice samples tested in upstate New York that were imported from India or Pakistan had arsenic levels lower than 95 percent of domestically produced rice. But, “[r]ice grown in the U.S. showed the widest overall range…and the largest number of outliers,” due primarily to where it was grown, as you can see at 3:01 in my video. There is significantly more arsenic in Texas and Arkansas rice than rice from California. California rice is comparable to rice produced around the rest of the world. These are presumably some of the data that led Consumer Reports to suggest brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan might be among the safer rice choices.If the arsenic is from pesticides, would organic rice have less than conventionally grown rice? No, because arsenic pesticides were banned about 30 years ago. It’s just that 30,000 tons of arsenic chemicals had already been dumped onto cotton fields in the southern United States, “so it is understandable that arsenic residues still remain in the environment” even if you don’t add an ounce of new pesticides. That’s why the industry specifically selects for arsenic-resistant varieties of rice plants in the South. If only there were arsenic-resistant humans.
What about other brands of rice? That was the subject of Which Rice Has Less Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?.
For even more background, see:
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Kudos to Consumers Union, the wonderful organization that publishes Consumer Reports, for its pioneering work on this and so many other topics.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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