20 September 2012

Keep eating rice and beans: arsenic in rice will not kill you

At first, I was all, "You should eat rice and beans a lot because it's cheap and healthy."

Then I was all, "What is this crazy article from Consumer Reports about arsenic in rice (also complete PDF of the results)?"

Consumers Union tested all manner of whole rice and processed-rice products, finding a surprising level of arsenic across the board, especially in American-grown rice. Interestingly, organic rice didn't necessarily have a lower level of arsenic than conventional rice. Arsenic levels appear to go down as the rice products are more processed, and white rice tends to have less arsenic than brown rice. Most relevant to the way Rowhouse Livin' uses rice, Consumers Union suggests that if you eat brown rice, you should limit your consumption to about a half cup (cooked, or 1/4 cup uncooked), twice per week.

Wait, what? Let's look at the actual numbers. Consumers Union found that a half cup of cooked brown rice -- a small serving for Rowhouse Livin' -- ranged up to 9.6 micrograms of arsenic. The federal limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion, which means 10 micrograms per liter. (New Jersey's limit is 5 ppb, according to Consumers Union.) So it appears to follow that eating a half cup of cooked brown rice could net you the same amount of arsenic as drinking a quart of the worst water in the U.S.

Arsenic is toxic and carcinogenic. Your lifetime risk of dying of cancer caused by arsenic in your tap water is possibly 13 in 1,000, though it's probably closer to 1 in 1,000. Note that in 2010, heart disease caused 193 deaths in 1,000 (PDF, p. 5). But brown rice is a high-fiber food with cardio-healthy nutrients that can lower your risk of heart disease.

On the other hand, Consumers Union says that "[p]eople who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not, according to [their] analysis of federal health data." The "levels" there were arsenic levels in urine. Consumers Union does not include units, however, so it's unclear to me how significant that figure is. The way Rowhouse Livin' sees it, 144 is 44% greater than 100 -- but what was that 100 of? If it's "100 grams of potato chips," then no big deal. If it's "100 milligrams of caffeine," then I may be a little more alert and wakeful this afternoon. My meaning: what were the initial levels, that the rice-eaters were 44% greater than?

To be clear, I'm not saying I'm happy to learn that my urine may have 44% higher arsenic levels than the urine of someone who never eats rice.

But it does inform what we're going to do here at Rowhouse Livin' with this article. First of all, we're not going to quit eating brown rice. In my view, the positive effects on my cardiovascular health outweigh what looks like a very small lifetime risk of dying of arsenic-caused cancer. The Consumers Union article suggests rinsing brown rice before cooking, to "[remove] about 30 percent of the rice's inorganic arsenic content." While rinsing white rice may remove vitamins and minerals sprayed on it to enrich it, rinsing brown rice shouldn't remove any nutrients, nor the angiotensin II tissue, located under the outer layer of the rice grain, mentioned in the Science Daily article linked to above.

Rowhouse Livin' is going to keep eating brown rice and beans. How about your household?

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