Rice is a staple crop, more than half of the world’s population lives off it, but new research has found that it’s highly contaminated with arsenic, and the amounts exceed many proposed regulatory safety standards. In fact, countries across the globe are consuming five-times more rice today than 40-years ago.
According to testing done on 81 different products by the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, researchers discovered 58% of the products evaluated exceeded the recommended limits for arsenic.
Popular products such as Kelloggs’ Rice Krispies and Kallo Organic Puffed Rice Cereal – tested multiple times – showed high levels of inorganic arsenic – around 188 parts per billion – which is way above the recommended levels for babies and children. Multiple exposures over a period of time can lead to a build-up of the toxin, causing cancer and heart disease.
Even though researchers are quickly working to solve the problem – most focusing on genetically modified solutions – the problem still remains. Many producers and suppliers of rice are aware of the toxin, but most have taken no immediate stance on the issue.
High levels of arsenic in rice accumulate because of specific growing conditions and biology factors. Crops are frequently grown in rice paddy fields, oftentimes sitting in flooding conditions, allowing arsenic to proliferate. The transporter roots, which take-up silicic acid, a by-product of arsenic, mistakenly drinks up the toxin through its shoots. Unfortunately, unlike other well-known grain crops, such as oats, barley, and wheat, rice plants contain a very efficient uptake system for contaminants.
Arsenic has the ability to harm humans, but it also inflicts damage on itself due to toxic exposure, minimizing the plants overall growth and long-term health.
The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN have set very high standards – 200 ppb for white and 400 ppb for brown rice – which is still way above the safe limits for consumption, especially for countries that rely heavily on the food. All rice has some arsenic in it, but brown is the biggest offender by far. Some brands tested contained 50% more than the safe limit per serving.
No food is completely safe from arsenic contamination, but consumers need to be careful about how much rice they’re consuming. Sourcing rice plants from other regions with low arsenic concentrations is one short-term solution, and cooking rice in a large excess of water can also help minimize risk, but until science finds a cure – the hunt for completely arsenic-free rice continues on.