First it was apple juice; now it's rice.
After months of listening to health experts and government agencies debate the potential health effects of arsenic found in apple juice, a new arsenic source has been discovered, and like apple juice, it's as common a kid food as Cheerios and bananas. It's rice.
A new study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center found a "significant link" between the consumption of rice and the amount of arsenic found in a woman's urine. For the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined more than 200 pregnant women in the New Hampshire area. They collected urine samples and dietary journals from the test subjects and found that each gram of rice consumed was associated with a 1 percent increase in total urinary arsenic. Their report concluded that consuming slightly more than half a cup of cooked rice per day (the average amount eaten by Americans) resulted in a total urinary arsenic concentration comparable to drinking a liter of water containing the maximum permissible amount of arsenic (10 ppb) for drinking water.
"The large and statistically significant association we observed between rice consumption and urinary arsenic, in addition to earlier reports of elevated arsenic concentrations in rice, highlights the need to regulate arsenic in food," noted the authors of the study.
How does arsenic get into rice?
As a plant, rice is particularly efficient at absorbing arsenic from the soil. That's good for the soil, but not so good for the grains of rice that wind up loaded with arsenic. To make matters worse, the majority of the rice produced in the U.S. is grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas on land formerly used to grow cotton, where pesticides that included arsenic were apparently used for decades. In fact, according to Andrew Meharg, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, much of the rice grown in the U.S. has been specifically designed to produce high yields on arsenic-contaminated soil. His research has shown that U.S. rice has among the highest average levels of inorganic arsenic in the world. Interestingly, Meharg also noted that rice grown in California has significantly lower arsenic levels than the rice grown in the former Cotton Belt.
This study further highlights the need for the FDA to set regulatory limits for arsenic levels in food and beverages. And on a larger scale, maybe we as a country should rethink growing food crops on land that is laden with arsenic (or any other toxin).