Seems that only recently it has become a popular topic of discussion that brown rice may not be as healthy as we thought. For years, brown rice has been marketed and thought of as a staple health super food. However, in 2013, FDA itself released results of 1,300 samples of rice and rice products and the results weren’t pleasant. The results? Nearly all rice products contain inorganic arsenic.
What is Inorganic Arsenic and Why is it Bad?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance that is found in our environment. It may be found in soil, air, water and our foods. There are two forms of arsenic that can be found in food, inorganic and organic. Inorganic arsenic is considered the most toxic form. Arsenic has a very long list of potential health effects which include nausea, vomiting, hypotension, shock, irritation of the skin, birth defects, lung cancer and even death.
Why is Arsenic In Our Food, More Specifically Rice?
Well it doesn’t seem like arsenic would be something we would want to put in our foods, does it? So why is it there and how does it get there? As we mentioned before, arsenic is a naturally occurring substance that is found in air, water, and soil. When rice grows, the paddles are flooded repeatedly to stop weeds from growing. During this process, water-soluble arsenic may absorb into the rice roots, specifically in the outer hulls. These are stripped off to make what we call white rice, but not for brown. This explains why there is more arsenic found in brown rice than white.
How Much Arsenic In Food is Too Much?
In rice grains, FDA found levels of 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic (brown rice at the high end) per serving, while the rice products ranged from 0.1 to 6.6 micrograms (rice pasta at the high end) per serving. In drinking water, according to EPA, the arsenic limit is set to 10 parts per billion (ppb), which was decreased in 2001 from 50 ppb. To give you an idea, 1 ppb is basically equal to one drop in the largest tanker truck that hauls gasoline. Our current intake from food, water, and the air is about 50 micrograms. Ppb, µg, who the heck cares, just tell us what does it all mean? Unfortunately, the key bit of information that is the most important, is missing. FDA has not done enough research to determine what amount of arsenic is safe to make a recommendation for our diets. They simply recommend varying our diets, which is always a good idea but not very helpful.
Fun/Not So Fun Fact
When it came to personal advancements, settling scores or getting rid of unbearable criminals in ancient Greece and Middle Ages, the most popular solution was arsenic. It was a secret weapon and the king of poisons as it was very difficult to detect (lack of color, odor, and taste) and it was readily available for everyone. A large dose could be slipped into a drink and it would cause violent cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and most often followed by death from shock. Sometimes it was given in small amounts over a long period and caused confusion and paralysis. Over time arsenic poison was “improved” to where a pea-sized drop would prove to be fatal.
You can thank SAINT Albertus Magnus, for the introduction of arsenic in free form. The standards for saints were probably a bit lower back in the day.
The Debate: Is Brown Rice Bad For You?
Anyone simply taking one side or another at this point should lose all credibility. There simply isn’t enough research and analysis to assess the long-term effects of brown rice on our health. Here are six points to consider about brown rice.
1. It Matters Where’s It’s Grown
Not all brown rice is created equal. Just like the rest of the food supply, it matters where and how it is grown. The highest levels of arsenic in rice were reported in the southern us states, while the lowest was in California. It would make sense that Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana would have the highest levels as those states have a long history of cotton cultivation. Why is it relevant? Because they used lead-arsenate insecticides which were only banned in the 80’s.
2. Brown Rice Has Been Around for Thousands of Years
Rice is one of the oldest documented crops and has been around since 2500 B.C. It’s been part of many myths, legends and is mentioned throughout our world’s history. Initially, all rice was brown rice (bran and germ intact). Only about in 17-18th century, Hakumai, or polished rice (white), became popular. However, then it was a food for nobles, warriors, wealthy merchants, and emperors; as rice had to be further processed by hand to remove the outer shell. Genmai or unpolished brown rice became the food of the poor. But it wasn’t until early 1800’s that this process became more automated by using water and steam-driven rice mills. By 1920’s rice mills and their intricate mechanical processes were widespread throughout the world. Flash forward to modern times, and according to International Rice Research Institute (yes, really), 3.5 billion people’s diets depend on rice for 20% of their daily calories intake. Most of this is white rice. So brown rice has been around for quite some time until recently when it became “dirty” rice. While this doesn’t necessarily prove that brown rice (or white for that matter) is healthy, it does give it some credibility in our history.
3. You Cannot Completely Eliminate Arsenic from your Diet
Whether you eliminate rice or not from your diet, you cannot escape from arsenic completely. Remember, it is found in air, water, soil and food products. Depending on what levels are damaging to our bodies short term and long term, changing your diet may have an irrelevant or a humongous impact.
4. We Don’t Know How Well Our Bodies Handle Arsenic
Our body is extremely good at getting rid of foreign and toxic substances (think alcohol, food poisoning) so who knows on how much damage arsenic is actually able to do before it leaves our system through urine. All of our bodies and immune systems are similar, but they are not the same. We do know for a fact, however, that organic arsenic is much more rapidly metabolized and eliminated from our system than inorganic arsenic. But how much of that inorganic arsenic (which comes from food) that is left for longer periods is actually damaging to our system?
5. Long Term Effects and Recommended Amount Not Known
This brings us to our next and main point. Nobody knows what the long or short-term effects of arsenic in food are. We do know that there is a HUGE list of health effects of arsenic but what amount is trivial and what amount is a hazard? A drop of alcohol in our system would hardly make a difference and be hardly damaging. However, increase the amount and time and you could potentially die or do serious damage to your body. This is the main point without which we cannot condemn brown rice at this point.
6. There Are Other Options
But what’s the big deal anyway? I know that we are creatures of habit, and those with gluten intolerance who depend on rice (mostly brown) alternatives need brown rice, but what about the rest of us? There are 100,000 or more varieties of rice, and 8,000 of them are cultivated by us and used for food. The rest are wild rice (which is actually not even related to the rice plant). But the point is, there are alternatives even if you don’t want to ditch rice all together for Quinoa.
There are simply too many health dangers from arsenic to ignore it completely. However, jumping on every bandwagon that comes along in the history may have adverse affects on your health as well. While more research is done, at the very least, we would suggest varying your diet as FDA recommends or switching to another type of rice instead. However, as we have said in the past with GMOs, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ isn’t the best way to approach your food and health. If something is up for heavy debate, don’t be a test bunny and stay away until we know all the facts.