The report late last month that babies fed heavily on rice have higher concentrations of arsenic in their bodies sent shivers through parents worldwide. It is true that rice naturally contains high concentrations of arsenic relative to other grains, but overall, rice is not the new cigarette and an easy cooking tip can minimize the amount of arsenic in grains generally and rice in particular. And one can feed the kids rice, as long as one feeds the kids other things too.
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It is true that arsenic is not benign. A Dartmouth study earlier this year found that eating even low levels of the mineral by overweight women can reduce the birth weight and length of baby girls, though their baby boys may be longer. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that exposure to arsenic during pregnancy and in infancy can impair a child’s performance on certain developmental tests.
The FDA doesn't suggest that people forgo rice, but is belatedly proposing to cap the amount of inorganic arsenic that rice-based baby food may contain.
In contrast to organic arsenic (often found in seafood, for instance), inorganic arsenic is not easily flushed from the body. The Israeli consumption directives are broken down by inorganic (the more hazardous type) and organic.
In Israel, the Health Ministry has published detailed directives regarding maximal permissible amounts of most heavy metals in different foods, including for babies and children. Their directives cover inorganic arsenic in various categories of food and were most recently updated this very month (the last update had been in 2009), the ministry told Haaretz. Basically, the Israeli directives are the same as Europe's, it says.
Arsenic, arsenic everywhere
Arsenic is a common mineral in the soil and water. Some take up less, some take up more. Rice takes up more, relative to, for instance, millet and quinoa.
Consumer Reports found measurable levels of arsenic in almost all the 60 rice types it checked, noting that the mineral is also found in rice pasta, drinks and cereals.
The worst offender is brown rice, which has the highest values of "good" minerals of all the rices but also the highest concentration of inorganic arsenic. (Organic rice is supposed to have lesser amounts of pesticides, not natural toxins like arsenic, by the way.)
Processed foods made from rice, including baby food, also contain arsenic, which has long been associated with heightened risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
But how serious is the danger? Should we forgo our biriyani and rice cakes? Not so fast.
Cooking it away
"It's easy to deal with arsenic. It's soluble in water," points out Mariana Urbach, head dietitian at Clalit Health Services.
Whatever rice you're preparing, be it high-arsenic brown or low-arsenic basmati, to minimize arsenic content, wash the rice first, Urbach says. Cook six cups of water to one cup of rice, discard all the water during the process and replace it with two cups of fresh water. Finish cooking. Rinse the finished product in yet more water. Ta da.
This cooking method will also discard some nutrients, but you can't have it all.
And if you can't be bothered to monkey with your rice? Putting things into proportion, the FDA estimates that exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products causes about four cases of lung and bladder cancer over the lifetime for every 100,000 Americans. In other words, the rice habit is responsible for a fraction of 1% of America's lung and bladder cancer cases.
Meanwhile, in a draft guidance to baby cereal manufacturers, the FDA recommends equating American restrictions on inorganic arsenic to European levels: no more than 100 parts per billion.
Should pregnant women abstain from rice, especially brown rice, despite its nutritional kick?
"I think that rice can be part of a healthy diet," Diane Gilbert-Diamond, assistant professor of epidemiology at Dartmouth and lead author of "Relation Between in Utero Arsenic Exposure and Birth Outcomes in a Cohort of Mothers and Their Newborns from New Hampshire", published in Environmental Health Perspectives, told Haaretz. "But I think it's important to eat a varied diet. Rather than only eating rice as a grain, pregnant women should eat a variety of grains and foods, which can help minimize their health risk. It's the best way to get a combination of nutrients as well."
For baby: Once a day
The FDA stresses that it isn't suggesting people change their rice consumption habits. It is, the organization says, just providing "targeted information for pregnant women and infants to help reduce exposure".
Note however, that feeding rice cereal to babies can be proportionally different than feeding it to adults. Relative to body weight, rice consumption for infants in a meal – mainly in rice porridges, drinks and cereal – can be about three times greater than for adults, the FDA explains.
Consumer Reports for recommends that babies average no more than one serving of rice porridge a day, and that parents be diligent about giving them variety in their grains.
Question of origin
You might prefer to buy a type of rice with lesser arsenic content. Good luck figuring out which it is. First of all, bags of rice don't come with little DIY testing kits for toxins. Secondly, in today's globalized world, we may not know where the bag came from.
Under Israeli law, a food importer must cite the country of origin on labeling. But we still can't know in what part of that country the rice was grown or where the irrigation water comes from. Is the water laden with arsenic? Does the land have other toxins, like Chernobyl has radioactive ions in the soil, as Urbach points out?
"The source of rice imported to Israel is the same countries that export rice to all the world markets," the Health Ministry told Haaretz. "Food products imported to Israel are sampled and checked randomly for various contaminants, including heavy metals, before their arrival in Israel."
So wash your rice first and cook it with lots of water. And stay in proportion. Almonds are chock full of cyanide but Israelis eat them by the ton and death by macaroon is not an issue.