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:

Cancer Risk from Arsenic in Rice and Seaweed

A daily half-cup of cooked rice may carry a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk of arsenic. What about seaweed from the coast of Maine?

“At one point during the reign of King Cotton, farmers in the south central United States controlled boll weevils with arsenic-based pesticides, and residual arsenic still contaminates the soil.” Different plants have different reactions to arsenic exposure. Tomatoes, for example, don’t seem to accumulate much arsenic, but rice plants are really good at sucking it out of the ground—so much so that rice can be used for “arsenic phytoremediation,” meaning you can plant rice on contaminated land as a way to clear arsenic from the soil. Of course, you’re then supposed to throw the rice—and the arsenic—away. But in the South, where 80 percent of U.S. rice is grown, we instead feed it to people.

As you can see at 0:52 in my video Cancer Risk from Arsenic in Rice and Seaweed, national surveys have shown that most arsenic exposure has been measured coming from the meat in our diet, rather than from grains, with most from fish and other seafood. Well, given that seafood is contributing 90 percent of our arsenic exposure from food, why are we even talking about the 4 percent from rice?

The arsenic compounds in seafood are mainly organic—used here as a chemistry term having nothing to do with pesticides. Because of the way our body can deal with organic arsenic compounds, “they have historically been viewed as harmless.” Recently, there have been some questions about that assumption, but there’s no question about the toxicity of inorganic arsenic, which you get more of from rice.

As you can see at 1:43 in my video, rice contains more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than does seafood, with one exception: Hijiki, an edible seaweed, is a hundred times more contaminated than rice, leading some researchers to refer to it as the “so-called edible hijiki seaweed.” Governments have started to agree. In 2001, the Canadian government advised the public not to eat hijiki, followed by the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Australia, and New Zealand. The Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety advised the public not to eat hijiki and banned imports and sales of it. Japan, where there is actually a hijiki industry, just advised moderation.

What about seaweed from the coast of Maine—domestic, commercially harvested seaweed from New England? Thankfully, only one type, a type of kelp, had significant levels of arsenic. But, it would take more than a teaspoon to exceed the provisional daily limit for arsenic, and, at that point, you’d be exceeding the upper daily limit for iodine by about 3,000 percent, which is ten times more than reported in a life-threatening case report attributed to a kelp supplement.

I recommend avoiding hijiki due to its excess arsenic content and avoiding kelp due to its excess iodine content, but all other seaweeds should be fine, as long as you don’t eat them with too much rice.

In the report mentioned earlier where we learned that rice has more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than fish, we can see that there are 88.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per kilogram of raw white rice. What does that mean? That’s only 88.7 parts per billion, which is like 88.7 drops of arsenic in an Olympic-size swimming pool of rice. How much cancer risk are we talking about? To put it into context, the “usual level of acceptable risk for carcinogens” is one extra cancer case per million. That’s how we typically regulate cancer-causing substances. If a chemical company wants to release a new chemical, we want them to show that it doesn’t cause more than one in a million excess cancer cases.

The problem with arsenic in rice is that the excess cancer risk associated with eating just about a half cup of cooked rice a day could be closer to one in ten thousand, not one in a million, as you can see at 4:07 in my video. That’s a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk. The FDA has calculated that one serving a day of the most common rice, long grain white, would cause not 1 in a million extra cancer cases, but 136 in a million.

And that’s just the cancer effects of arsenic. What about all the non-cancer effects? The FDA acknowledges that, in addition to cancer, the toxic arsenic found in rice “has been associated with many non-cancer effects, including ischemic heart disease, diabetes, skin lesions, renal [kidney] disease, hypertension, and stroke.” Why, then, did the FDA only calculate the cancer risks of arsenic? “Assessing all the risks associated with inorganic arsenic would take considerable time and resources and would delay taking any needed action to protect public health” from the risks of rice.

“Although physicians can help patients reduce their dietary arsenic exposure, regulatory agencies, food producers, and legislative bodies have the most important roles” in terms of public health-scale changes. “Arsenic content in U.S.-grown rice has been relatively constant throughout the last 30 years,” which is a bad thing.

“Where grain arsenic concentration is elevated due to ongoing contamination, the ideal scenario is to stop the contamination at the source.” Some toxic arsenic in foods is from natural contamination of the land, but soil contamination has also come from the dumping of arsenic-containing pesticides, as well as the use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry production and then the spreading of arsenic-laced chicken manure on the land. Regardless of why south central U.S. rice paddies are so contaminated, we shouldn’t be growing rice in arsenic-contaminated soil.

What does the rice industry have to say for itself? Well, it started a website called ArsenicFacts. Its main argument appears to be that arsenic is everywhere, we’re all exposed to it every day, and it’s in most foods. But shouldn’t we try to cut down on the most concentrated sources? Isn’t that like saying look, diesel exhaust is everywhere, so why not suck on a tailpipe? The industry website quotes a nutrition professor saying, “All foods contain arsenic. So, if you eliminate arsenic from your diet, you will decrease your risk…and you’ll die of starvation.” That’s like Philip Morris saying that the only way to completely avoid secondhand smoke is to never breathe—but then you’ll asphyxiate, so you might as well just start smoking yourself. If you can’t avoid it, you might as well consume the most toxic source you can find?!

That’s the same tack the poultry industry took. Arsenic and chicken? “No need to worry” because there’s a little arsenic everywhere. That’s why it’s okay the industry fed chickens arsenic-based drugs for 70 years. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

How can the rice industry get away with selling a product containing a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk? I cover that and so much more in my other videos on arsenic and rice, which also include concrete recommendations on how to mediate your risk.

Check out:

Pesticides were not the only source of arsenic. Poultry poop, too, if you can believe it! I cover that story in Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? and Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?.

Chronic low-dose arsenic exposure is associated with more than just cancer. See The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in the Diet.

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: