Which Rice Has the Least Amount of Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?

Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice, but the arsenic in brown rice is less absorbable, so how does it wash out when you compare the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters to brown-rice eaters?

Arsenic in rice is a cause for concern, according to a consensus statement by the European and North American societies for pediatric nutrition. At the very least, “in areas of the world where rice consumption is high in all ages, authorities should be prompted to declare which of the rice [types] have the lowest arsenic content and are, therefore, the least harmful for use during infancy and childhood.” I look into the arsenic content of different rices in my video Which Rice Has Less Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?.

Extensive recent testing by the FDA found that long grain white rice, which is what most people eat, appears to have more arsenic than medium or short grain rice, but this may be because most of the shorter grains are produced in California, which has significantly less contaminated rice paddies than those in the South, such as in Texas or Arkansas, where most of the long grain rice is grown. So, it’s less long grain versus short grain than white rice versus brown rice, as the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic in parts per billion of long grain white rice is 102.0 and 156.5 in short, medium, and long grain brown rice, as you can see at 0:54 in my video.

What about some of the naturally pigmented varieties like red rice or black rice, which may be even healthier than brown? As you can see at 1:08 in my video, they may contain even less arsenic than white rice. One sample of black rice from China that was purchased in Kuwait had higher levels for total arsenic, so the toxic inorganic portion may only be half that, putting it on par with U.S. brown rice. The study’s red rice sample from Sri Lanka was even more extraordinary, with less than a fifth of the arsenic of the Chinese black rice. But, the Sri Lankan red rice sample had a ridiculous high amount of cadmium, evidently attributed to the cadmium content of widely used Sri Lankan fertilizers.

Colored rice samples purchased mostly in the United States were better than brown or white, and a dozen samples of red rice purchased in Europe were as bad, or even worse, as brown rice. I was hoping that wild rice would have little or no arsenic because it’s a totally different plant, but an average of eight samples showed it to be nearly comparable to white, though the wild rice samples contained only half as much toxic arsenic as brown rice.

As you can see at 2:06 in my video, the arsenic found in a daily serving of white rice carries 136 times the acceptable cancer risk, but brown rice is even riskier at 162. Brown rice averages two-thirds more toxic arsenic than white rice. But, is that just because brown rice tends to be a different strain or grown in different places? No. If you take the exact same batch of brown rice and measure the arsenic levels before and after polishing it to white, you do get a significant drop in arsenic content.

It’s not what you eat, though. It’s what you absorb. The arsenic in brown rice appears to be less bioavailable than the arsenic in white rice. The texture of brown rice may cut down on the release of arsenic from the grain, or perhaps the bran in brown rice helps bind it up. Regardless, taking bioavailability into account, the difference in arsenic levels in white versus brown rice may be a third more, rather than 70 percent more, as you can see at 2:57 in my video. This estimate, however, was based on an in vitro gastrointestinal fluid system in which researchers strung together beakers and tubes to mimic our gut, with one flask containing stomach acid and another intestinal juices. What happened when it was tested in humans? Yes, “evidence suggests that brown rice may contain more arsenic than white rice,” but the researchers aimed to determine how much is actually absorbed by measuring the urine levels of arsenic in white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. For the arsenic to get from the rice into your bladder, it has to be absorbed through your gut into your bloodstream.

As you can see at 3:45 in my video, the urine of thousands of American test subjects who don’t eat rice at all still contains about 8 micrograms of toxic, carcinogenic arsenic a day. It’s in the air, it’s in the water, and there’s a little bit in nearly all foods. But, eat just one food—a cup or more of white rice a day—and your arsenic exposure shoots up by 65 percent to about 13 micrograms a day.

What about those who eat a cup or more of brown rice every day, which technically contains even more arsenic? Their exposure shoots up the same 65 percent. There is no difference between the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. However, this was not an interventional study in which they fed people the same amount of rice to see what happened, which would have been ideal. Instead, it was a population study, so maybe the reason the levels are the same is that white-rice eaters eat more rice than do brown-rice eaters. Could that be why they ended up with the same levels? We don’t know, but it should help to put the minds of brown-rice eaters to rest. But would it be better to eat no rice at all? That’s what I’ll explore in my next few blogs.


 If you’re just joining in on this topic, check out these lead-up videos:

 

It seems like each of these videos just raises more questions, but don’t worry because I’ve got answers for you. See:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?

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.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?

What happens when our crops are grown in soil contaminated with arsenic-based pesticides and arsenic drug-laced chicken manure?

When arsenic-containing drugs are fed to chickens, not only does the arsenic grow out into their feathers, which are then fed back to them as a slaughterhouse byproduct, but the arsenic can also get into their tissues and then into our tissues when we eat eggs or meat, a cycle depicted at the start of my video Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?. This explains why national studies have found that those who eat more poultry have tended to have more arsenic flowing through their bodies. Why would the industry do that? In modern poultry farms, often called CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations, there can be 200,000 birds under one roof and the floors of these buildings become covered with feces. While this so-called factory farming decreases costs, it also increases the risk of disease. That’s where arsenic-containing drugs and other antibiotic feed additives can come in: to try to cut down the spread of disease in such an unnatural environment. If you’re feeling a little smug because you don’t eat chicken, what do you think happens to the poop?

As depicted at 1:17 in my video, from chicken manure, the arsenic from the drugs in the animal feed can get into our crops, into the air, and into the groundwater, and find its way into our bodies whether we eat meat or not. Yes, but how much arsenic are we really talking about? Well, we raise billions of chickens a year, and, if, historically, the vast majority were fed arsenic, then, if you do the math, we’re talking about dumping a half million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year—much of it onto our crops or shoveled directly into the mouths of other farm animals.

Most of the arsenic in chicken waste is water soluble, so, there are certainly concerns about it seeping into the groundwater. But, if it’s used as a fertilizer, what about our food? Studies on the levels of arsenic in the U.S. food supply dating back to the 1970s identified two foods, fish aside, with the highest levels—chicken and rice—both of which can accumulate arsenic in the same way. Deliver an arsenic-containing drug like roxarsone to chickens, and it ends up in their manure, which ends up in the soil, which ends up in our pilaf. “Rice is [now] the primary source of As [arsenic] exposure in a non seafood diet.”

I was surprised to learn that mushrooms are in the top-five food sources of arsenic, but then it made sense after I found out that poultry litter is commonly used as a starting material to grow mushrooms in the United States. As you can see at 2:58 in my video, over the years, the arsenic content in mushrooms has rivaled arsenic concentration in rice, though people tend to eat more rice than mushrooms on a daily basis. Arsenic levels in mushrooms seemed to be dipping starting about a decade ago, which was confirmed in a 2016 paper that looked at a dozen different types of mushrooms: plain white button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, shiitake, trumpet, oyster, nameko, maitake, alba clamshell, brown clamshell, and chanterelle. Now, mushrooms are only averaging about half the arsenic content as rice, as you can see at 3:37 in my video.

Just like some mushrooms have less arsenic than others, some rice has less. Rice grown in California has 40 percent less arsenic than rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Why? Well, arsenic-based pesticides had been used for more than a century on millions of acres of cotton fields, a practice noted to be “dangerous” back in 1927. Arsenic pesticides are now effectively banned, so it’s not simply a matter of buying organic versus conventional rice because millions of pounds of arsenic had been laid down in the soil well before the rice was even planted.

The rice industry is well aware of this. There’s an arsenic-toxicity disorder in rice called “straighthead,” where rice planted in soil too heavily contaminated with arsenic doesn’t grow right. So, instead of choosing cleaner cropland, they just developed arsenic-resistant strains of rice. Now, lots of arsenic can build up in rice without the plant getting hurt. Can the same be said, however, for the rice consumer?

It’s the same story with wine. Arsenic pesticides were used, decade after decade, and even though they’ve since been banned, arsenic can still be sucked up from the soil, leading to “the pervasive presence of arsenic in [American] wine [that] can pose a potential health risk.” Curiously, the researchers sum up their article by saying that “chronic arsenic exposure is known to lower IQ in children,” but if kids are drinking that much wine, arsenic toxicity is probably the least of their worries.

Hold on. Chickens are being fed arsenic-based drugs? See Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? to find out more.


 I expect the arsenic-in-rice issue brought up a lot of questions, and giving you answers is exactly why I’m here! Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: