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 to Lower Your Sodium Intake

Reduction of salt consumption by just 15 percent could save the lives of millions. If we cut our salt intake by half a teaspoon a day, which is achievable simply by avoiding salty foods and not adding salt to our food, we might prevent 22 percent of stroke deaths and 16 percent of fatal heart attacks—potentially helping more than if we were able to successfully treat people with blood pressure pills. As I discuss in my video Salt of the Earth: Sodium and Plant-Based Diets, an intervention in our kitchens may be more powerful than interventions in our pharmacies. One little dietary tweak could help more than billions of dollars worth of drugs.

What would that mean in the United States? Tens of thousands of lives saved every year. On a public-health scale, this simple step “could be as beneficial as interventions aimed at smoking cessation, weight reduction, and the use of drug therapy for people with hypertension or hypercholesterolemia,” that is, giving people medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. And, that’s not even getting people down to the target. 

A study I profile in my video shows 3.8 grams per day as the recommended upper limit of salt intake for African-Americans, those with hypertension, and adults over 40. For all other adults the maximum is 5.8 daily grams, an upper limit that is exceeded by most Americans over the age of 3. Processed foods have so much added salt that even if we avoid the saltiest foods and don’t add our own salt, salt levels would go down yet still exceed the recommended upper limit. Even that change, however, might save up to nearly a hundred thousand American lives every year.

“Given that approximately 75% of dietary salt comes from processed foods, the individual approach is probably impractical.” So what is our best course of action? We need to get food companies to stop killing so many people. The good news is “several U.S. manufacturers are reducing the salt content of certain foods,” but the bad news is that “other manufacturers are increasing the salt levels in their products. For example, the addition of salt to poultry, meats, and fish appears to be occurring on a massive scale.”

The number-one source of sodium for kids and teens is pizza and, for adults over 51, bread. Between the ages of 20 and 50, however, the greatest contribution of sodium to the diet is not canned soups, pretzels, or potato chips, but chicken, due to all the salt and other additives that are injected into the meat.

This is one of the reasons that, in general, animal foods contain higher amounts of sodium than plant foods. Given the sources of sodium, complying with recommendations for salt reduction would in part “require large deviations from current eating behaviors.” More specifically, we’re talking about a sharp increase in vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains, and lower intakes of meats and refined grain products. Indeed, “[a]s might be expected, reducing the allowed amount of sodium led to a precipitous drop” in meat consumption for men and women of all ages. It’s no wonder why there’s so much industry pressure to confuse people about sodium.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend getting under 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, while the American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 mg/day. How do vegetarians do compared with nonvegetarians? Well, nonvegetarians get nearly 3,500 mg/day, the equivalent of about a teaspoon and a half of table salt. Vegetarians did better, but, at around 3,000 mg/day, came in at double the American Heart Association limit.

In Europe, it looks like vegetarians do even better, slipping under the U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ 2,300 mg cut-off, but it appears the only dietary group that nails the American Heart Association recommendation are vegans—that is, those eating the most plant-based of diets.


This is part of my extended series on sodium, which includes:

If you’re already cutting out processed foods and still not reaching your blood pressure goals, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Why We Should Cut Down on Salt Independently of Blood Pressure

If you put people on a low-salt diet, meaning only getting twice as much sodium as they need, as opposed to a usual salt diet where they’re getting five times more, you get a significant improvement in artery function. Lower salt begets better arterial function, suggesting heart-protective effects beyond just blood pressure reduction. Now, this was after dropping people’s salt intake by about a teaspoon a day for two weeks. What if you only dropped salt intake by a half teaspoon or so a day? You still get a significant improvement in artery function, and it happens within just two days of reducing one’s salt intake—or, even after a single meal. A high-salt meal, which is to say just a “typical amount of salt consumed in a commonly eaten meal, can significantly suppress [artery function] within 30 [minutes].” In my video Sodium and Arterial Function: A-Salting Our Endothelium, I show what happens 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after consuming a meal with just a pinch of salt in it versus eating the same meal, but made with a quarter teaspoon of salt rather than a pinch: a significant suppression of arterial function. Now, is this in addition to the spike in blood pressure from salt or because of the spike in blood pressure?

If you take people with normal blood pressure and give them a bowl of soup containing the amount of salt a regular meal might contain, their blood pressure goes up over the next three hours compared to the same soup with no added salt. Now, this doesn’t happen to everyone; this is just the average response. Some people are resistant to the effects of salt on their blood pressure. So what if you repeated the artery function experiment on them? You get a paper entitled (*spoiler alert*): “High dietary sodium intake impairs endothelium-dependent dilation in healthy salt-resistant humans.” Indeed, even in people whose blood pressure is unresponsive to salt intake, they still suffer significant suppression of their artery function. So, independent of any effects on blood pressure, salt hurts our arteries, and that harm begins within minutes of consumption for our major arteries and even our tiny blood vessels.

Using something called laser Doppler flowmetry, you can measure blood flow in the tiny vessels in our skin. In the video, you can see the measurement of blood flow at baseline. Now, to get the blood vessels to open up, they warmed the skin. The reason we may turn pink when we get into a hot bath is that the blood vessels in our skin are opening up, and that’s what happened: a big increase in blood flow with the warming. That was on the low-salt diet, however. A high-salt diet starts out the same, but after the same warming, there’s significantly less blood flow. The arteries just don’t seem to open up as well on a high-salt diet, unless you inject vitamin C into the skin. That seems to reverse the salt-induced suppression of blood vessel function. So if an antioxidant reverses the salt effect, then the way salt may be damaging our artery function is through oxidative stress, the formation of free radicals in our blood stream. But, how?

There’s an enzyme in our body that can detoxify a million free radicals per second (!), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But, compared to a low-salt diet, if we consume a normal-salt diet, we suppress the activity of this detoxifying powerhouse of an enzyme. That may help explain why our artery function is much lower on salt. With our antioxidant enzymes crippled by the salt, all the excess free radicals may be crippling our arteries. Mop up those extra free radicals by infusing vitamin C into the bloodstream, however, and artery function returns to normal. In contrast, on a low-salt diet, if you drip vitamin C into people’s veins, nothing happens because our antioxidant enzymes are already taking care of business and haven’t been shackled by the sodium of a normal-salt diet.

Whereas potassium, concentrated in fruits and vegetables, softens the cells that line our arteries and increases the release of nitric oxide that allows our arteries to relax, sodium in our blood stiffens the artery lining within minutes and reduces nitric oxide release. The more salt, the less nitric oxide is produced. Consume one salty meal, and not only does our blood pressure go up, but our arteries literally stiffen. That’s why we could figure out four thousand years ago that too much salt was bad for us. Maybe we don’t need a double-blind trial. Maybe we don’t need to follow people around for a decade. We may just have to feed someone a bag of potato chips and take their pulse.


My video Sodium and Arterial Function: A-Salting Our Endothelium is part of an extended video series on sodium, trying to set the record straight on the “controversy” manufactured by the processed food industries. Check out the other installments:

Other salt-related videos of interest include:

I touched on potassium in Preventing Strokes with Diet and Lowering our Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio to Reduce Stroke Risk, but I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into the mineral when I get a chance.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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