Growing up, we only had rice occasionally, though I always enjoyed it when we did. That all changed when I married my husband who is half Japanese. He would happily live all of his days without bread as long as he had a nice bowl of rice. While white rice was perhaps a preference in certain Asian dishes, we both enjoyed brown rice for it’s hearty, nutty flavor.

My mother-in-law (who was full Japanese) shared with me an interesting story of what happened in her family when they started trying to eat a healthier diet. One of the significant changes they made was to switch over to brown rice instead of white rice – which is a big deal when you are Asian. Her grandmother had started graying before this point, but her family was amazed to find that her hair started turning black again once they changed to brown rice. There are theories that graying hair is linked to certain vitamin deficiencies including some of the B vitamins. It is possible that the vitamins found in brown rice (but absent in white rice) made the difference for her.

I personally have always just enjoyed brown rice better in most food contexts (with the exception of sushi), so it was never a sacrifice for me to enjoy brown rice. But then I heard about the arsenic concerns with rice in general. Any plant can take up arsenic from its growing conditions, but rice is vulnerable because it is often grown in waterlogged conditions, and since arsenic is easily dissolved in water, water can end up being high in arsenic. And, unfortunately, brown rice can contain more arsenic because a lot of the arsenic is bound in the bran of the rice.

This is a problem because arsenic is toxic. Anyone who has watched "Arsenic and Old Lace" knows that when consumed in high amounts, arsenic is lethal. It is believed that the reason arsenic is put into chicken feed is because is shuts down the chicken’s thyroid function, allowing them to fatten up more quickly. But it’s even worse then that. The information below is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's PDF on arsenic.

Arsenic is connected to miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm labor, cancer and more. “Chronic exposure of humans to inorganic arsenic in the drinking water has been associated with excess incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm births, and infants with low birth weights. Animal data suggest that arsenic may cause changes to reproductive organs of both sexes, including decreased organ weight and increased inflammation of reproductive tissues, although these changes may be secondary effects ... Arsenic is a known human carcinogen by both the inhalation and oral exposure routes. By the inhalation route, the primary tumor types are respiratory system cancers, although a few reports have noted increased incidence of tumors at other sites, including the liver, skin, and digestive tract. In humans exposed chronically by the oral route, skin tumors are the most common type of cancer. In addition to skin cancer, there are a number of case reports and epidemiological studies that indicate that ingestion of arsenic also increases the risk of internal tumors (mainly of bladder and lung, and to a lesser extent, liver, kidney, and prostate).”  (PDF )

Now, rice is hardly the only food that contains arsenic and we get some from our water too. While rice does have a higher uptake of arsenic than many plants, there are other offenders as well, such as root vegetables and leafy greens. With root vegetables, simply peeling them will reduce much of your arsenic exposure, but dark leafy greens, such as arugula, lettuce, cabbage and other similar greens can actually accumulate arsenic as well. In fact, according to John M. Duxbury, PhD, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., “Concentrations in leaves of plants are much higher than grains of plants. Thus, leafy vegetables can contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, especially when they are grown on arsenic-contaminated soils.”

What does that mean?

Best-case scenario would be either growing your own food and testing the soil for arsenic and using best practices to diminish arsenic uptake in plants. (Did you know that the common fertilizer phosphorus can make crops take up more arsenic, for example?). Or buy from farms that use similar practices. There isn’t as much information on farms and brands and testing on dark greens and arsenic, so I am especially encouraged to continue to learn how to grow my own lettuce, and kale, and other leafy greens, but also to look into arsenic testing so that I can make sure I am not adding arsenic into our diets along with all of the health benefits! I am also considering contacting some of the local farms to find out if they do lead and arsenic testing on their soil.

We need to keep in mind that, as scary as it sounds, we are surrounded by toxins. One of our best defenses is having a body that is healthy and working well so that its natural detoxing mechanisms are working well, because no matter what, our body is going to have to deal with some toxins. However, one of the ways we keep our body healthy is not overloading it with toxins. I have decided that it would be wise to try to cut down on the sources of arsenic that we can.

How to cut down on arsenic when eating rice 

  • White rice is generally significantly lower in arsenic than brown, so switching has been a simple choice. We just make sure we are getting our mineral and vitamin needs from other foods.
  • Rinsing white rice until the water runs clear before cooking can reduce arsenic levels up to 30 percent. We did this already as it is a traditional Asian practice.
  • Rice grown in California is much lower in arsenic than rice grown in the South, where high arsenic pesticides were used in cotton farming years ago (arsenic stays in the environment for years and years). One company I like is Lundberg. They have a list of their arsenic testing here, which shows that their long grain white rice and basmati rice are especially low in arsenic. You can see all of the test results from Consumer Reports (link below) – but keep in mind that these test results could change year to year for companies, especially if they aren’t committed to reducing arsenic.
  • Aromatic rice seem to be lower in general, such as Jasmine and Basmati. Imported Jasmine and Basmati rice are typically significantly lower in arsenic levels than most U.S.-grown rice. Thailand rice is not only found to be low in arsenic in the latest testing, but last I heard they had banned genetically modified rice from their country, another important aspect to rice eating to consider.
  • There are other options, such as cooking rice in large amounts of water, and then draining the rice, like pasta, to reduce arsenic as well. You just may not make very Asian-perfect rice this way. See this link for more information.
  • And, of course, it makes sense to vary the grains you eat. For us that means enjoying other gluten-free grains, such as millet and quinoa.
  • Don’t feed rice cereal to infants. I don’t recommend feeding rice cereal to babies anyway, but this is another good reason to avoid the practice.
  • If you are dairy-free, use dairy-free milks other than rice milk.
  • Rice cakes, and such, aren’t very nutritious, and can be a higher source of arsenic, as can be brown rice noodles and other packaged foods made with rice flours. Avoid these products.
  • Use other natural sweeteners instead of rice syrup.