People who eat rice have 44% higher arsenic levels: Report

Rice, a staple for many across the world, has been considered one of the safest and easily digestible nutritious foods. It is also an important alternate grain for those who are gluten or wheat intolerant and those suffering from celiac disease. However, some recent reports on its toxicity, specifically related to arsenic, have been a cause of concern.

In a consumer report of US federal health data, it was found that people who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who did not. Certain ethnic groups like Asians and Mexicans were more affected. A study by the European Food Safety Authority found cereal products could account for more than half of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly because of rice. Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That's in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains.

The US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has found arsenic content in over 30 samples of Indian basmati rice in its preliminary analysis. USFDA is in the process of collecting and analysing a total of approximately 1,200 samples of rice from different countries including India to examine the issue thoroughly. This data collection will be completed by the end of 2012 after which FDA will determine whether or not to issue further recommendations.

Health impact

Arsenic is not only a potent human carcinogen but also can cause other health problems in children later in life. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder, and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs. Exposure to lower levels can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of "pins and needles" in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles, and torso.

There is some evidence that long-term exposure to arsenic in children may result in lower IQ scores.

Better option: White rice

Interestingly, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels have been found to be higher for brown rice than for white. The process of polishing rice to produce white rice removes those surface layers, slightly reducing the total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in the grain. In brown rice, only the hull is removed. Arsenic concentrations found in bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain. This also makes arsenic in rice bran oil, a concern.

Nevertheless, rice is an important and nutritious staple for many people and it may be premature to draw conclusions regarding changes in eating habits. Infact, USFDA is not recommending changes in consumption of rice and rice products. According to them, consumers must eat a balanced diet including a wide variety of grains, not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.

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