Okay, fine. I’ll eat white rice. (But if you are worried about arsenic, consider your dark greens too!)

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 greying 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 greying 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 water logged 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 it is lethal. It is believed that the reason arsenic is desired in 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. This is from a CDC 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. However, these changes do not result in a significant impact on reproductive ability. Animal studies of oral inorganic arsenic exposure have reported developmental effects, but generally only at concentrations that also resulted in maternal toxicity.

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 up take 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 this mean then?

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 buying from farms who use similar practices. Because there isn’t as much information on brands and testing on dark greens and arsenic, 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. Yes, it is very unfortunate that there can be arsenic in certain foods. But do keep in mind that healthy foods will also help us deal with the toxins that we are exposed too! 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.

Reducing arsenic when eating right

  •  Eating white rice, generally significantly lower in arsenic than brown, 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, also can reduce arsenic levels up to 30%. We did this already as it is a traditional Asian practice.
  • For US grown rice, 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 significant lower in arsenic than most US 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, or starchy roots (without the peels).
  • Don’t feed rice cereal to infants.  I don’t recommend feeding rice cereal to babies anyways, 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.

For more information on this topic:

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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Comments

  1. Laura says

    Very helpful info. I had heard that imported rice is probably lower in arsenic, and we like Jasmine rice from Thailand. Glad to see that Thailand is not allowing GMOs.

  2. says

    This was an informative article. I knew about rice but not about the vegetables. The reality is we can only do so much. We have to trust the Lord to do the rest.

    • KimiHarris says

      Amy,

      Well, that is definitely my reality! 🙂 We really are surrounded by a huge variety of toxins everyday. I like to just reduce the load when I can. Plus, produce gives our bodies needed nutrients to deal with toxins. I do think the gardening tips were important for home gardeners though (in the PDFs). Makes me want to test my soil!

    • Arlene Howard says

      Comment to Amy: With due respect, The Lord isn’t going to intervene, ask pertinent questions of farmers and test the soil. Start to take some responsibility for what is going on around you. The US love affair with Monsanto and similar environmentally unfriendly companies, is slowly poisoning it’s citizens and THAT my dear is what every single person in this country should be addressing. The Lord aint going to stop that! Take action and contact your local congressmen and women. Tell them to stand up for the health of their constituents and ban pesticides and GMO’s! There is no such thing as gluten intolerance in France… do you know why? Because ALL GMO foods and pesticides are banned over there. The people can eat the wheat and other grains freely, without any concerns about intolerance. I’m sick and tired of hearing that The Lord will take care of everything. It is NOT up to him, it is up to YOU!

  3. Julie says

    Kimi,
    I am SO appreciative of your research and your blog, as I am a regular reader. However, I feel discouraged after reading this, as we have been eating brown rice for years, thinking it was better than white rice . This has been my experience again and again, it seems that just when I think I have it figured out, I find out there is another bit of information to consider! Such is life, I know! I wonder if you ever feel this way?
    Warmly,
    Julie Z.

    • KimiHarris says

      Oh, I am sorry Julie! I know that it can be discouraging. I wouldn’t worry about all of the brown rice you have eaten. It may not have been that high in arsenic, first of all, as it can vary, and secondly, rice constitutes 17% of arsenic in the average diet, while produce gives 20%. I haven’t heard anyone recommend that you never eat kale again, it’s just wise to try to cut down on the sources you can.

      When I first heard this news, I thought – “Oh, we are only eating quinoa now!” And then “Until we find out something really wrong with quinoa!”. There are always going to be toxins, I have accepted that. The good thing about this issue is that there are ways to reduce arsenic in our food right now as consumers, and farmers are starting to look at better farming practices to reduce it in their rice products as well.

      (And yes, I can personally feel frustrated too, when a new complications appears in my eating habits and ideas.)

  4. says

    Great article! And isn’t quinoa just perfect. Except for turmoil its exportation causes in Bolivia. Sigh. On a brighter note, we are eating your fruit juice gelatin from 2008. Everyone loves it!

  5. says

    I am just wondering what the symptoms might be if we are consuming too much arsenic?
    Also, what about pesticides etc. used on almonds? That is my favorite thing right now, but I’m worried when I don’t buy organic everything. Yikes!

  6. Lisa says

    Thank you for this research, Kimi. We eat 98% organic, and I guess I had a false sense that we weren’t getting any toxins like this. I try to vary our diet a lot, but the truth is, we do rely on brown rice quite a lot being gluten free (and, frankly we just love it.) I almost always cook my rice in bone broth. I wonder if that helps. I’ve read that a lot of the minerals in stock have a protecting effect against toxins.

    Arsenic in my rice (and greens), lead in the bone broth, flouride in the kombucha.

    **Sighs**

    Wouldn’t life be easier if we didn’t have to eat??

    • KimiHarris says

      Lisa,

      Eating organically does mean that you are drastically reducing many toxins! Our food just isn’t 100% toxin-free. 🙂 I think that the more nutrition you get, the better your body can deal with naturally detoxing and dealing with toxins.

      Life would be easier if we didn’t have to eat (or sleep), but how boring a life that would be! Enjoy food. Don’t let stress or worries take the joy out of it for you. 🙂

  7. Jenae says

    Wondering what the levels of arsenic might be in sprouted brown rice? Theoretically wouldn’t it possibly be lower since the arsenic is contained in the bran? I’m hoping so anyway since I love sprouted brown rice! I agree with the comments on a balanced perspective- good information and good reinforcement to grown your own food as much as possible, but also realizing that even brown rice is going to be better than McD’s. 🙂

    • KimiHarris says

      It would be really interesting to find out! I haven’t come across any data on it, especially as I love using sprouted brown rice flour in baking. Has anyone else?

  8. cirelo says

    I think this post is rather alarmist. It seems silly to get in such a tizzy over every single fad in eating. Especially when the evidence is rather weak as in this post. Just because there is a occasional measurable level of arsenic in the food doesn’t show how or even whether that toxin is absorbed by our bodies. Green plants for example carry out many toxins with their high levels of anti-oxidants.

    • KimiHarris says

      I am sorry you feel that way, Cirelo. This post isn’t trying to alarm people, but rather to explain why I now choose to use white rice in my recipes (something that rather needs explanation for a “whole food” blog!). I am not sure where you got “occasional measurable level” of arsenic from my post, because that is not the case. There is consistent measurable arsenic in certain foods. Keeping arsenic at acceptably low levels is hardly a fad diet, and is something that is measured in our water by the government to ensure it doesn’t go too high because of it’s known risks. Which is why we don’t want to be eating so much rice, our arsenic intake ends up going over the limit set by the government as safe for consumption. This is being treated seriously by many, including rice growers, some of whom are attempting to lower the arsenic amount in their products. For those who want more information, please follow the many links provided in the above post!

      • Arlene Howard says

        Kimi,
        I am most alarmed at the lack of responsibility taken here and in your blog. As I stated in an earlier response, isn’t it our responsibility to contact our local representatives and insist that they start working to ban GMO’s and companies like Monsanto – the way A lot of countries in Europe and Russia have done?

        • Charmaine says

          Don’t believe everything you read. Round up is freely available in garden centers, home depot stores like Homebase and many other places here in the United Kingdom. I keep an organic garden but my neighbours and the councils use Roundup. They also use glyphosate to kill Japanese knotweed and the people who apply it are dressed in full hasmat gear….yet you can buy it in a plastic bottle in supermarkets. The blasted stuff is everywhere, worldwide! My local council won’t give a hoot if I ask them to stop using Roundup.

  9. says

    When you started this post, I thought you were leading up to brown rice being a good thing. I have never heard of arsenic found in foods, especially rice!

    Although our family follows a traditional middle eastern diet, I reduced my families rice intake (brown basmati and white basmati) to about 1 time a week many years ago. I just didn’t feel right being stuffed with rice and wasn’t sure how to get the proper facts.

    I always tend to look back at tradition and speak to the very elderly in the middle east to get my knowledge of real traditional foods. I have found that white rice in fact is a part of tradition and it actually can grow white. I had always thought that it was bleached and enriched.

    Eating healthy is always challenging for people who don’t follow a specific traditional ethnic food. Everything seems new to them, when if they do a little research and learn old methods, many answers will present themselves. (Along with new facts as you have presented) Thanks!

  10. Abby H. says

    Thank you for this information…this is all very interesting and much to ponder! We don’t eat a whole lot of grains, but when we do eat rice, it has been brown, and then lately being gluten-free, we’ve done some baking with brown rice flour. I know pasta in general is not very healthy, but do you have a GF recommendation instead of brown rice pasta?

  11. Steph says

    Why don’t you recommend feeding rice cereal to infants (arsenic issue aside) and what do you recommend instead?

  12. Vonnie says

    I grow my own greens, but where I live in South Carolina was almost certainly a cotton field at some point. I used raised beds, mostly because the topsoil was razed when the house was built so it’s probably not a bit problem, but maybe I should consider getting it tested.

    I’m also dismayed about the rice because it is so hard to get my son with autism to eat anything nutritious. I make brown rice in homemade stock. Maybe if I parboiled it first, it might help.

  13. Jen says

    Thankfully, we’re not big rice eaters. However, when I did serve it, I used brown rice for several years and tried to like it, but I just didn’t. I finally released myself of all guilt, and started making organic basmati rice (from India) cooked in bone broth, that I purchase at Trader Joe’s. We all love it.

    This is good, factual information, and not alarmist at all. I have the same attitude you do about life. We will never be able to eliminate all the toxins we’re exposed to in our world. I just make every effort to reduce the load in our diets and our home (cleaning products and personal care) as much as I can, and don’t worry about the rest.

  14. Jeannie says

    This is my first time posting, although I am a long-time lurker on this awesome website….
    I feel that the nutritional benefit of brown rice exceeds the risk of arsenic, but then again, we don’t eat it every single day, it’s more of a 2-3 times a week thing. However, there is something to be said for the phytic acid contained in the rice bran. And that traditional cooking of rice doesn’t really allow for the absorption of nutrients, so the B vitamins are rendered un-absorbable anyway.

    On the Weston Price website about soaking and fermenting brown rice to make its nutrients digestible. The first time, I soak in warm water with a couple tablespoons of whey or lemon juice, for a period of 24-48 hrs. The soaking water will look slightly bubbly/efervescent, and will smell fermented. Prior to draining, I reserve about 1/4 cup of this water and store it in the refrigerator in a small glass container.

    Then I drain and rinse the rice well, and cook it in bone broth. When I’ve done it this way it is still chewy and nutty but loses some of that “grassy” taste that is unique to brown rice. I mostly use it in casseroles this way and my picky husband has yet to notice the difference from white rice…before I used this technique he could definitely tell if the rice was brown, and would make a face accordingly haha.

    The advantage of saving a portion of the soaking water, is that it speeds up the next batch. It takes three stages to get a strong innoculant. The second time I make rice, I soak for 24 hours, and again, save 1/4 cup of soaking liquid. By the third time, I just leave the rice soaking overnight and it ferments perfectly.

    Another benefit is it cooks much faster. I have noticed when prepared this way the rice is extremely filling, which makes me think the nutrients are actually made available to our body. I know the soaking/fermenting neutralizes the phytic acid, and although I don’t know what effect it has on the arsenic levels, I would think that the long soak and rinsing would wash away some of it.

    Anyway, sorry about this long ramble but hopefully it will be helpful to someone!

    • KimiHarris says

      Jeannie,

      I understand feeling that way. Right now some experts are recommending that you limit rice to one serving once a week, because some brands had amounts of arsenic that were not scoff at – especially for young children, and pregnant and nursing mothers. I don’t want to sound “alarmist”, but I also don’t want to treat it lightly. (The FDA, of course, says its concerning but not to change anything in your diet because of arsenic – typical response from them however).

      At this point, we don’t really know what happens to the arsenic when soaking it, so I think it unwise to assume that it takes care of the issue.

      That said, I personally love soaked/fermented brown rice and think it has a lovely texture and flavor. The only reason I didn’t discuss it was because 1) I do, at this point, use and recommend white rice for the most part. 2) This post was quite long already. 3) I have discussed soaking rice in Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons, and the topic in general so much in the past on this blog, I get tired of writing it all out again. 😉

  15. Tracy Quebral says

    Thank you so much for posting this. And thank you for the link to your post on eating white rice over brown. We’ll be switching to all white rice. We eat a ton of rice here for the same reason you mentioned. My husband is half Filipino, and they ate rice constantly while growing up. And the other is that two of us are gluten-intolerant, so we eat a lot of brown rice pasta too, and that’s a concern for me now. I love quinoa, but don’t love quinoa pasta, and I like corn, but don’t love corn pasta. Ugh. We mostly eat rice though, and I have been rinsing it since hearing about this awhile back. We have always bought our rice from the Asian Market nearby. We buy 25 pound bags at a time, and it is from Thailand, so from the articles I read, that should be better. Thanks again.

  16. says

    Well at least rice doesn’t contain Acrylamide!
    Having had food intollerance I found white basmati rice was ok but other types of rice made me sick. I’ve just been reading that lead and cadmium are more of an issue with rice than arsenic is, so that’s quite a mixture. Rice can contain arsenic, rocket fuel, lead and cadmium, I’m amazed the human species aren’t extinct by now! To avoid acrylamide we need to boil, steam or poach what exactly? Everythings contaminated or toxic. A teaspoon of turmeric a day for me I think!

  17. Ruth Jaeger says

    We do take other sources of arsenic into consideration. Much of our green vegetables are gotten from an organic farm that doesn’t use any animal manures in the soil.

    I also try to limit juices, thus avoiding too much exposure from apple or grape juice.

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