Forget Jollof Rice Wars. Should You Be Worried About the Arsenic in Your Rice?

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Published: December 8, 2016


A reader submitted a question to Radiant Health that we felt was worth exploring further. She wrote, It’s in the medical journals that rice contains arsenic (a carcinogenic compound) and that it’s much more in brown rice due to less processing. What is your take on this?”

Is There Arsenic in Your Rice?

Although arsenic is something you don’t generally associate with food, recent research suggests that depending on what’s on your plate, you could be ingesting small amounts of the harmful substance.

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is an element that is found in nature and the environment. And as depicted in movie murder mysteries, arsenic taken in large amounts can make a person very sick and even cause death.

Due to increased pollution from factories and mines, and in the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, the amount of arsenic in our environment has increased. Today it’s common to find small amounts of arsenic in many of the foods we eat, including fruits, vegetables, grains and even water. However, it is the increasing amount of arsenic in our rice supply that is currently causing alarm.

Why worry?

In the body, arsenic changes the way cells communicate with each other and how they function.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States suggests that long-term exposure to the element could increase the risk of skin, bladder and lung cancers as well as heart disease. Other studies hypothesize that it may play a role in the development of high blood pressure and diabetes.

How arsenic enters the rice supply

Rice plants appear to absorb arsenic from the soil more easily than other plant foods. And if the water supply feeding the plant is polluted, it too can be an additional source of arsenic.

Although most varieties of rice contain some arsenic, there is significant evidence that white rice contains less arsenic than its brown counterpart. This is because most of the arsenic in rice is stored in the outer shell, the bran of the grain, which is removed during the processing of white rice. This shell is otherwise extremely nutritious because it contains essential nutrients and vitamins and is a good source of fiber.

Should you stop eating rice?

The FDA does not recommend eliminating rice altogether. It’s an important staple in many kitchens and plays a large role in our diets. Besides, what would Ghana and Nigeria fight over if we got rid of Jollof?

Instead, let’s keep the fight going and try these tips to reduce overall exposure:

  1. Follow the simple adage that dietitians constantly preach — “Everything in moderation!” Include rice in your diet, but don’t make it the only grain. Try other grains such as sorghum, millet, fonio, teff and maize. Even your favorite roots and tubers, like cassava, yam and plantain, make terrific substitutes for rice.
  1. Thoroughly rinse your rice using a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 cup rice. This method has been demonstrated to reduce arsenic content by almost 30 percent. Unfortunately, rinsing also washes out some essential nutrients, so be sure to eat a variety of foods to make sure your diet is well balanced and meets your needs.
  1. If available in your local area, choose basmati rice grown in India, Pakistan and California, as it contains almost a third less arsenic than rice grown in other areas.
  1. Babies and toddlers have tiny bodies which are more likely to accumulate high amounts of arsenic. If you have a little person in the house, limit rice cereal intake to once a day. Give your baby other sources of nutrition by introducing him or her to a wide variety of grains, such as oats, buckwheat and multigrain cereals. 

Bottom line

Although rice does contain arsenic, the amount in the portion sizes we consume is not enough to require its being banned from the diet. Enjoy rice, but don’t make it the only grain in your diet.  Add other grains, roots and tubers for delicious, equally nutritious substitutes.

Here’s to your health!

Thank you to the reader who asked this useful question about arsenic in rice. If you have any health-related questions of your own, please send them to us at hello@radianthealthmag.com.

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About Cordialis Msora-Kasago

Cordialis Msora-Kasago is a Registered Dietitian (R.D) and a pioneer in the discussion of modern day healthy lifestyles in Africa. She is the founder of The African Pot Nutrition - an organization that improves the health of African people through sustainable diet and lifestyle programs. Follow her on twitter @africadietitian.

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