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:

No Purveyor of Unhealthy Products Wants the Public to Know the Truth

In 2011, Denmark introduced the world’s first tax on saturated fat. “After only 15 months, however, the fat tax was abolished,” due to massive pressure from farming and food company interests. “Public health advocates are weak in tackling the issues of corporate power…A well-used approach for alcohol, tobacco, and, more recently, food-related corporate interests is to shift the focus away from health. This involves reframing a fat or soft drinks tax as an issue of consumer rights and a debate over the role of the state in ‘nannying’ or restricting people’s choices.” I discuss this in my video The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

“The ‘Nanny State’ is a term that is usually used in a pejorative way to discourage governments from introducing legislation or regulation that might undermine the power or actions of industry or individuals…Public health advocacy work is regularly undermined by the ‘Nanny State’ phrase.” But those complaining about the governmental manipulation of people’s choices hypocritically tend to be fine with corporations doing the same thing. One could argue that “public health is being undermined by the ‘Nanny Industry’…[that] uses fear of government regulation to maintain its own dominance, to maintain its profits and to do so at a significant financial and social cost to the community and to public health.”

The tobacco industry offers the classic example, touting “personal responsibility,” which has a certain philosophical appeal. As long as people understand the risks, they should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. Now, some argue that risk-taking affects others, but if you have the right to put your own life at risk, shouldn’t you have the right to aggrieve your parents, widow your spouse, and orphan your children? Then, there’s the social cost argument. People’s bad decisions can cost the society as a whole, whose tax dollars may have to care for them. “The independent, individualist motorcyclist, helmetless and free on the open road, becomes the most dependent of individuals in the spinal injury ward.”

But, for the sake of argument, let’s forget these spillover effects, the so-called externalities. If someone understands the hazards, shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want? Well, “first, it assumes individuals can access accurate and balanced information relevant to their decisions…but deliberate industry interference has often created situations where consumers have access only to incomplete and inaccurate information…For decades, tobacco companies successfully suppressed or undermined scientific evidence of smoking’s dangers and down played the public health concerns to which this information gave rise.” Don’t worry your little head, said the nanny companies. “Analyses of documents…have revealed decades of deception and manipulation by the tobacco industry, and confirmed deliberate targeting of…children.” Indeed, it has “marketed and sold [its] lethal products with zeal…and without regard for the human tragedy….”

“The tobacco industry’s deliberate strategy of challenging scientific evidence undermines smokers’ ability to understand the harms smoking poses” and, as such, undermines the whole concept that smoking is a fully informed choice. “Tobacco companies have denied smokers truthful information…yet held smokers [accountable] for incurring diseases that will cause half of them to die prematurely. In contexts such as these, government intervention is vital to protect consumers from predatory industries….”

Is the food industry any different? “The public is bombarded with information and it is hard to tell which is true, which is false and which is merely exaggerated. Foods are sold without clarity about the nutritional content or harmful effects.” Remember how the food industry spent a billion dollars making sure the easy-to-understand traffic-light labeling system on food, which you can see at 4:26 in my video, never saw the light of day and was replaced by indecipherable labeling? That’s ten times more money than the drug industry spends on lobbying in the United States. It’s in the food industry’s interest to have the public confused about nutrition.

How confused are we about nutrition? “Head Start teachers are responsible for providing nutrition education to over 1 million low-income children annually…” When 181 Head Start teachers were put to the test, only about 4 out of the 181 answered at least four of the five nutrition knowledge questions correctly. Most, for example, could not correctly answer the question, “What has the most calories: protein, carbohydrate, or fat?” Not a single teacher could answer all five nutrition questions correctly. While they valued nutrition education, 54 percent “agreed that it was hard to know which nutrition information to believe,” and the food industry wants to keep it that way. A quarter of the teachers did not consume any fruits or vegetables the previous day, though half did have french fries and soda, and a quarter consumed fried meat the day before. Not surprisingly, 55 percent of the teachers were not just overweight but obese.

When even the teachers are confused, something must be done. No purveyor of unhealthy products wants the public to know the truth. “An interesting example comes from the US ‘Fairness Doctrine’ and the tobacco advertising experience of the 1960s. Before tobacco advertising was banned from television in the US, a court ruling in 1967 required that tobacco companies funded one health ad about smoking for every four tobacco TV advertisements they placed. Rather than face this corrective advertising, the tobacco industry took their own advertising off television.” They knew they couldn’t compete with the truth. Just “the threat of corrective advertising even on a one-to-four basis was sufficient to make the tobacco companies withdraw their own advertising.” They needed to keep the public in the dark.

The trans fat story is an excellent example of this. For more on that, see my videos Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban and Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Isn’t the Fairness Doctrine example amazing? Just goes to show how powerful the truth can be. If you want to support my efforts to spread evidence-based nutrition, you can donate to our 501c3 nonprofit here. You may also want to support Balanced, an ally organization NutritionFacts.org helped launch to put this evidence into practice.


More tobacco industry parallels can be found in Big Food Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook, American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco, and How Smoking in 1959 Is Like Eating in 2016.

Want to know more about that saturated fat tax idea? See Would Taxing Unhealthy Foods Improve Public Health?.

Also check:

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:

What About the Trans Fat in Animal Fat?

The years of healthy life lost due to our consumption of trans fats are comparable to the impact of conditions like meningitis, cervical cancer, and multiple sclerosis. But, if “food zealots” get their wish in banning added trans fats, what’s next? I explore this in my video Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Vested corporate interests rally around these kinds of slippery slope arguments to distract from the fact that people are dying. New York Mayor Bloomberg was decried as a “meddling nanny” for his trans fat ban and attempt to cap soft drink sizes. How dare he try to manipulate consumer choice! But isn’t that what the food industry has done? “Soft drink portion sizes have grown dramatically, along with Americans’ waistlines.” In 1950, a 12-ounce soda was the king-sized option. Now, it’s the kiddie size. Similarly, with trans fats, it was the industry that limited our choice by putting trans fats into everything without even telling us. Who’s the nanny now?

New York City finally won its trans fat fight, preserving its status as a public health leader. “For example, it took decades to achieve a national prohibition of lead paint, despite unequivocal evidence of harm,” but New York City’s Board of Health led the way, banning it “18 years before federal action.”

There’s irony in the slippery slope argument: First, they’ll come for your fries; next, they’ll come for your burger. After the trans fat oil ban, one of the only remaining sources of trans fat is in the meat itself. “Trans fats naturally exist in small amounts in the fat in meat and milk,” as I’ve discussed before in my video Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy. Before the trans fat ban, animal products only provided about one fifth of America’s trans fat intake, but since the U.S. trans fat ban exempts animal products, they will soon take over as the leading source. As you can see at 2:09 in Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat, now that added trans fats are banned in Denmark, for example, the only real trans fat exposure left is from animal products found in the U.S. dairy, beef, chicken fat, turkey meat, lunch meat, and hot dogs, with trace amounts in vegetable oils due to the refining process.

The question is: Are animal trans fats as bad as processed food trans fats? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, a compilation of randomized interventional trials found that they both make bad cholesterol go up and they both make good cholesterol go down. So, both animal trans fats and processed food trans fats make the ratio of bad to good cholesterol go up—which is bad. Therefore, all trans fats cause negative effects “irrespective of their origin.” The researchers suspect that also removing natural trans fats from the diet could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, but unlike processed foods, you can’t remove trans fats from milk and meat because trans fats are there naturally.

The livestock industry suggests that a little bit of their trans fats might not be too bad, but you saw the same everything-in-moderation argument coming from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils after industrial trans fats were first exposed as a threat. The bottom line is “that intake of all sources of trans fat should be minimized.” The trans fat in processed foods can be banned, and just adhering to the current dietary guidelines to restrict saturated fat intake, which is primarily found in meat and dairy, would automatically cut trans fat intake from animal fats.

The reason no progress may have been made on animal trans fat reduction in Denmark is because The Danish Nutrition Council that pushed for the trans fat ban was a joint initiative of The Danish Medical Association and The Danish Dairy Board. They recognized that “the economic support from The Danish Dairy Council could be perceived as problematic” from a scientific integrity point of view, but, not to worry—“The Danish Medical Association expanded the Executive Board and the funding members to also include the Danish pork industry, the Danish meat industry, The Poultry and Egg Council and The Danish Margarine Industry Association.”

If people want to eat trans fat, isn’t that their right? Yes, but only if they’re informed about the risks—yet The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

For more on the industry pushback, see my video Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban.

There does not appear to be a safe level of exposure to trans fat—or to saturated fat or dietary cholesterol, for that matter. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.


If you find these videos about industry influence on public policy compelling, check out my many others, including:

Note that the concept of raising or lowering HDL (the so-called good cholesterol) playing a causal role in heart disease has come into question. See Coconut Oil and the Boost in HDL “Good” Cholesterol.

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: