Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food?

Arsenic is not just considered to be a carcinogen; it’s also designated as a “nonthreshold carcinogen, meaning that any dose, no matter how small, carries some cancer risk”—so there really isn’t a “safe” level of exposure. Given that, it may be reasonable to “use the conservative ALARA” approach, reducing exposure As Low As Reasonably Achievable.

I have a low bar for recommending people avoid foods that aren’t particularly health-promoting in the first place. Remember when that acrylamide story broke, about the chemical found concentrated in french fries and potato chips? (See my video Acrylamide in French Fries for more.) My take was pretty simple: Look, we’re not sure how bad this acrylamide stuff is, but we’re talking about french fries and potato chips, which are not healthy anyway. So, I had no problem provisionally bumping them from my list of yellow-light foods into my red-light list, from “minimize consumption” to “ideally avoid on a day-to-day basis.”

One could apply the same logic here. Junk foods made out of brown rice syrup, rice milk, and white rice are not just processed foods, but also arsenic-contaminated processed foods, so they may belong in the red zone as red-light foods we should avoid. What about something like whole brown rice? That is more difficult, because there are pros to help outweigh the cons. I discuss this in my video Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food?, where you can see a graphical depiction of my traffic light food system at 0:49.

The rice industry argues that the “many health benefits of rice consumption outweigh any potential risk,” which is the same sentiment you hear coming out of Japan about the arsenic-contaminated seaweed hijiki: Yes, “the cancer risk posed by hijiki consumption exceeds this acceptable [cancer risk] level by a factor of 10,” an order of magnitude, but the Japanese Ministry of Health stresses the “possible health benefits,” such as lots of fiber and minerals, as if hijiki was the only weed in the sea. Why not choose any of the other seaweeds and get all the benefits without the arsenic? So, when the rice industry says the “many health benefits of rice consumption outweigh any potential risk,” it’s as if brown rice was the only whole grain on the planet. Can’t you get the whole grain benefits without the risks by eating oatmeal, barley, or quinoa instead? Or, is there some unique benefit to rice, such that we really should try to keep brown rice in our diet?

Consumer Reports recommended moving rice to the yellow-light zone—in other words, don’t necessarily avoid it completely, but moderate your intake. The rice industry, in a fact sheet entitled “The Consumer Reports Article is Flawed,” criticized Consumer Reports for warning people about the arsenic levels in rice, saying “[t]here is a body of scientific evidence that establishes…the nutritional benefits of rice consumption; any assessment of the arsenic levels in rice that fails to take this information into account is inherently flawed and very misleading.” The rice industry cites two pieces of evidence. First, it asserts that rice-consuming cultures tend to be healthier, but is that because of, or despite, their white rice consumption? And what about the fact that rice-eating Americans tend to be healthier? Perhaps, but they also tend to eat significantly less saturated fat. So, once again, how do we know whether it’s because of—or despite—the white rice?

The rice industry could have cited the study I discuss at 3:12 in my video that showed that brown rice intake of two or more servings a week was associated with a lower risk of diabetes, but presumably, the reason it didn’t is because intake of white rice is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, and white rice represents 95 percent of the U.S. rice industry. Switching out a third of a serving of white rice a day for brown rice might lower diabetes risk by 16 percent, but switching out that same white rice for whole grains in general, like oats or barley, might work even better! So, other grains have about ten times less arsenic and are associated with even lower disease risk. No wonder the rice industry doesn’t cite this study.

It does cite the Adventist studies, though, and some in vitro data. For example, in a petri dish, as you can see at 4:05 in my video, there are rice phytonutrients that, at greater and greater doses, can inhibit the growth of colon cancer cells while apparently leaving normal colon cells alone, which is exciting. And, indeed, those who happened to eat those phytonutrients in the form of brown rice once or more a week between colonoscopies had a 40 percent lower risk of developing polyps. (The consumption of green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, and beans were also associated with lower polyp incidence.) But, the only reason we care about the development of polyps is that polyps can turn into cancer. But, there had never been studies on brown rice consumption and cancer…until now, which I discuss in my video Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.


For those unfamiliar with my traffic light system, I talk about it in my book trailer. Check out How Not to Die: An Animated Summary.

Almost there! This is the corresponding article to the 12th in my 13-video series on arsenic in the food supply. If you missed any of the first 11 videos, see:

Ready for the finale? See Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

And you may be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

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:

How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much?

What are some strategies to reduce arsenic exposure from rice?

Those who are exposed to the most arsenic in rice are those who are exposed to the most rice, like people who are eating plant-based, gluten-free, or dairy-free. So, at-risk populations are not just infants and pregnant women, but also those who may tend to eat more rice. What “a terrible irony for the health conscious” who are trying to avoid dairy and eat lots of whole foods and brown rice—so much so they may not only suffer some theoretical increased lifetime cancer risk, but they may actually suffer arsenic poisoning. For example, a 39-year-old woman had celiac disease, so she had to avoid wheat, barley, and rye, but she turned to so much rice that she ended up with sky-high arsenic levels and some typical symptoms, including “diarrhea, headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, abnormal taste, and impaired short-term memory and concentration.” As I discuss in my video How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much, we, as doctors, should keep an eye out for signs of arsenic exposure in those who eat lots of rice day in and day out.

As you can see at 1:08 in my video, in its 2012 arsenic-in-rice exposé, Consumer Reports recommended adults eat no more than an average of two servings of rice a week or three servings a week of rice cereal or rice pasta. In its later analysis, however, it looked like “rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than [its] 2012 data showed,” so Consumer Reports dropped its recommendation down to from three weekly servings to a maximum of only two, and that’s only if you’re not getting arsenic from other rice sources. As you can see from 1:29 in my video, Consumer Reports came up with a point system so people could add up all their rice products for the week to make sure they’re staying under seven points a week on average. So, if your only source of rice is just rice, for example, then it recommends no more than one or two servings for the whole week. I recommend 21 servings of whole grains a week in my Daily Dozen, though, so what to do? Get to know sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, barley, or any of the other dozen or so common non-rice whole grains out there. They tend to have negligible levels of toxic arsenic.

Rice accumulates ten times more arsenic than other grains, which helps explain why the arsenic levels in urine samples of those who eat rice tend to consistently be higher than those who do not eat rice, as you can see at 2:18 in my video. The FDA recently tested a few dozen quinoa samples, and most had arsenic levels below the level of detection, or just trace amounts, including the red quinoas that are my family’s favorite, which I was happy about. There were, however, still a few that were up around half that of rice. But, overall, quinoa averaged ten times less toxic arsenic than rice. So, instead of two servings a week, following the Consumer Reports recommendation, you could have 20. You can see the chart detailing the quinoa samples and their arsenic levels at 2:20 in my video.

So, diversifying the diet is the number-one strategy to reduce exposure of arsenic in rice. We can also consider alternatives to rice, especially for infants, and minimize our exposure by cooking rice like pasta with plenty of extra water. We found that a 10:1 water-to-rice ratio seemed best, though the data suggest the rinsing doesn’t seem to do much. We can also avoid processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup. Is there anything else we can do at the dining room table while waiting for federal agencies to establish some regulatory limits?

What if you eat a lot of fiber-containing foods with your rice? Might that help bind some of the arsenic? Apparently not. In one study, the presence of fat did seem to have an effect, but in the wrong direction: Fat increased estimates of arsenic absorption, likely due to the extra bile we release when we eat fatty foods.

We know that the tannic acid in coffee and especially in tea can reduce iron absorption, which is why I recommend not drinking tea with meals, but might it also decrease arsenic absorption? Yes, by perhaps 40 percent or more, so the researchers suggested tannic acid might help, but they used mega doses—17 cups of tea worth or that found in 34 cups of coffee—so it isn’t really practical.

What do the experts suggest? Well, arsenic levels are lower in rice from certain regions, like California and parts of India, so why not blend that with some of the higher arsenic rice to even things out for everybody?

What?!

Another wonky, thinking-outside-the-rice-box idea involves an algae discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park with an enzyme that can volatize arsenic into a gas. Aha! Researchers genetically engineered that gene into a rice plant and were able to get a little arsenic gas off of it, but the rice industry is hesitant. “Posed with a choice between [genetically engineered] rice and rice with arsenic in it, consumers may decide they just aren’t going to eat any rice” at all.


This is the corresponding article to the 11th in a 13-video series on arsenic in the food supply. If you missed any of the first ten videos, watch them here:

You may also be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

Only two major questions remain: Should we moderate our intake of white rice or should we minimize it? And, are there unique benefits to brown rice that would justify keeping it in our diet despite the arsenic content? I cover these issues in the final two videos: Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food? and Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

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:

How Risky Is the Arsenic in Rice?

Getting rice down to the so-called safe water limit for arsenic would still allow for roughly 500 times greater cancer risk than is normally considered acceptable. Given the level of arsenic in rice, how could we figure out how much rice is too much? There are no U.S. standards for arsenic in rice, even though “food sources are the main source of exposure.” There are limits on arsenic in apple juice and tap water, though. To calculate those, experts must have sat down, determined out how much arsenic a day was too much—too risky—then figured people typically drink about four to eight cups of water a day, and set the limits that way, right? Okay, well, can’t we just use their how-much-arsenic-a-day-is-too-much-arsenic-a-day number, and, based on the average arsenic content in rice, figure out how-much-rice-a-day-is-too-much-rice? I discuss this in my video How Risky Is the Arsenic in Rice?.

“The allowable level established by the FDA for arsenic in bottled water is 10 ppb,” assuming people might drink a liter a day. So, based on that daily 10 ppb limit, how much rice is that?

“Each 1 g increase in rice intake was associated with a 1% increase in urinary total arsenic, such that eating 0.56 cups [a little over a half cup] of cooked rice was considered comparable with drinking 1 L/d,” one liter per day, of that maximally contaminated water. Well, if you can eat a half cup a day, why does Consumer Reports suggest eating just a few servings of rice a week? You could eat nearly a serving every day and still stay within the daily arsenic limits set for drinking water.

Well, Consumer Reports felt the 10 ppb water standard was too lax, so, it went with the “most protective standard in the country,” at 5 ppb. Guess where it came from? New Jersey. Good for New Jersey! So, by using 5 ppb instead of 10 ppb in the calculation, you can see how Consumer Reports got to its only-a-few-servings-of-rice-a-week recommendation. Presumably, that’s based on average arsenic levels in rice. If you choose a lower-arsenic rice, one with only half the level of arsenic, can you have four servings a week instead of two? And, if you boil rice like pasta and drain off the excess water, doesn’t that also cut levels in half? If so, then you are up to about eight servings a week. Based on the water standard, apparently, you could still safely eat a serving of rice a day if you choose the right rice and cook it right. I assumed the water limit is ultra-conservative since people are expected to drink water every day of their lives, whereas most people don’t eat rice every day, seven days a week. I made that assumption, but I was wrong. It turns out the opposite is true.

All this time, I had been assuming the current drinking guideline exposure would be safe, which in terms of carcinogens, is usually “1 in a million chances of getting cancer over a lifetime.” I’ve mentioned this before. It’s how cancer-causing substances are typically regulated. If a company wants to release some new chemical, it has to show that it doesn’t cause more than one in a million excess cancer cases. Of course, there are 300 million people in this country, so that one-in-a-million doesn’t make the 300 extra families who have to deal with cancer feel any better, but that’s just the kind of agreed upon “acceptable risk.”

The problem, according to the National Research Council, is that with the current federal drinking water standard for arsenic of 10 μg/L, we are not talking about an excess cancer risk of 1 in a million people, but as high as 1 case in 300 people. Those 300 extra cases of cancer just turned into a million more cases? A million more families dealing with a cancer diagnosis? “This is 3000 times higher than a commonly accepted cancer risk for an environmental carcinogen of 1 case in 1 000 000 people.” If we were to use the normally accepted 1 in a million odds of cancer risk, the water standard would have to be 500 times lower, .02 instead of 10. Even the New Jersey standard is 250 times too high. “While this is a rather drastic difference… it underlines just how little precaution is instilled in the current guidelines.”

Hold on. So why isn’t the water standard .02 instead of 10? Because that “would be nearly impossible to implement” as we just don’t have the technology to get arsenic levels in water that low. The technologically feasible level has been estimated at 3. Okay, so why is the limit 10 and not 3? The decision to use a threshold of 10 instead of 3 was “mainly a budgetary decision.” A threshold of three would cost a lot of money.

So, the current water “safety” limit “is more motivated by politics than by technology.” Nobody wants to be told they have toxic tap water. If they did, they might demand better water treatment and that would be expensive. “As a result, many people drink water at levels very close to the current guideline… and may not be aware that they are exposed to an increased risk of cancer.” Even worse, millions of Americans drink water exceeding the legal limit, as you can see at 5:10 in my video. But, even the people living in areas that meet the legal limit “must understand that current arsenic guidelines are only marginally protective.”

Perhaps we should tell people who drink water—i.e., everyone—“that current arsenic regulations are a cost-benefit compromise and that, based on usual health risk paradigms, the standards should be much lower… People must be made aware that regulatory targets for arsenic should be as close to zero as possible,” and, when it comes to water, we should aim for the reachable limit of 3. What does this mean for rice, though?

Well, first of all, so much for just trying to get rice down to the so-called safe water limit, since that “already exceeds standard [carcinogen] risks and is based on feasibility and cost-benefit compromises,” which “allows for a roughly 500 times higher risk of cancer” than is normally considered acceptable. So, “while authorities ponder when and how they will regulate arsenic concentration in rice,” perhaps we should “curtail or strongly limit our consumption of rice.”

This is the corresponding blog post to the pivotal video in my 13-part series on arsenic in the food supply. The final three videos focus on how to deal practically with the repercussions:


If you missed any of the first nine videos, see:

You may also be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

My arsenic series reminds me of the extensive video series I did on lead:

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: