Arsenic in Rice and Gluten-Free Diets

High arsenic levels in rice bring concerns for special populations

Uncooked white rice in a jar

Teri Lee Gruss

Do gluten-free diets put people at a higher risk for excessive and dangerous exposure to inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen? It depends on the food choices you make, how much you consume, and what variety of rice you eat.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirms that there are higher levels of inorganic arsenic in rice than in other foods. There is a special concern for infants, who get an average of three times more rice intake than adults in relation to body weight, due to the prevalence of infant rice cereal. People on gluten-free diets may also consume more rice than typical as it is in many gluten-free products.

Arsenic Dangers

Arsenic as a natural element (mineral) that occurs in water, soil, air, and food. Arsenic exists in several forms including inorganic, organic, and as a gas. Because it exists in nature, it is virtually impossible for humans to completely avoid exposure to arsenic.

The FDA notes that arsenic, especially in its inorganic form, is linked to increased risks for lung, bladder, and skin cancer, may increase risks for cardiovascular disease and in children, and excess exposure to arsenic can affect brain development.

Arsenic in Rice

While foods such as leafy vegetables, fruit, and seafood may contain significant levels of arsenic, rice is particularly susceptible to arsenic contamination because it's grown in fields which are flooded with water. The roots of the rice plant take up and store arsenic under these conditions.

Rice fields in the South-Central U.S. are established on fields once used to grow cotton. The cotton crop was sprayed with arsenic-containing pesticides. This has led to ongoing contamination with arsenic in the soil and groundwater, even in organically-grown rice. Rice grown in this region of the U.S. has higher levels of arsenic than rice grown in California.

Consumer Reports researchers analyzed 223 samples of rice and rice-based products typically found at grocery stores in the U.S. The results were published in the November 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine in the article "Arsenic in Your Food." Virtually all rice products tested contained arsenic, from low levels to potentially toxic levels.

Brown rice, which contains the fibrous bran of the rice kernel, has significantly higher levels of arsenic than white rice which is processed, or "polished" to remove the outer layer of bran. The brown rice flour tested by Consumer Reports researchers contained about twice the amount of arsenic as the same brand of white rice flour.

Safety Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency has set safety standards for arsenic in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb), but no agency has set safety standards for arsenic levels in food. In 2016 the FDA proposed an action level (limit) of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. The FDA says "inorganic arsenic exposure in infants and pregnant women can result in a child's decreased performance on certain developmental tests that measure learning."

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, lists arsenic as number one on their "Priority List of Hazardous Substances." This does not mean that arsenic is the most toxic of all substances but, according to the ATSDR, the list is "a prioritization of substances based on a combination of their frequency, toxicity, and potential for human exposure at NPL (National Priorities List) sites."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans consume about a half-cup of rice per day but that Asian Americans may consume more than two cups per day. The Minnesota Department of Health says that "Most people consume about 6 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per day from food and water."

Rice in Gluten-Free Diets

People with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and dermatitis herpetaformis are prescribed a gluten-free diet. Strictly following a gluten-free diet is considered a "cure" for most people afflicted with these conditions. A gluten-free diet is free of wheat, barley, rye and all foods that may be cross-contaminated with gluten during growing and processing.

Rice flour is often the main ingredient in gluten-free baking mixes, commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods including bread, cookies, brownies and cakes, and gluten-free snack products including crackers and chips. Gluten-free rice pasta and rice flour are frequently called for in gluten-free recipes. As a result, people on gluten-free diets may consume several servings of rice daily, often as rice flour, rice cereal products, and brown rice syrup.

FDA Recommendations

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is studying arsenic in rice and has especially focused on arsenic in foods consumed by infants and toddlers. The FDA says to follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and feed infants and toddlers a variety of grains rather than primarily rice cereal. Iron-fortified rice cereal is nutritious, but you can get iron-fortified oat, barley, and multigrain cereals to ensure variety.

Reducing Exposure to Arsenic in Rice Products

Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst at Environmental Working Group, says “The public should not wait for FDA; there are a number of steps people can take that will dramatically reduce the amount of arsenic they ingest.” You can do these things proactively:

  • Assess how much rice you and your family are consuming.
  • Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. If you eat rice, substitute white rice for brown rice in your diet.
  • In a 2014 article, Consumer Reports researchers found that white basmati rice had the lowest levels of arsenic of rice varieties tested and that the Asian-style rice noodles tested contained significantly less arsenic than brown rice pasta products.
  • For whole rice, Consumer Reports recommends of Consumer Reports adults only eat 1.25 to 2 servings per week.
  • Instead of feeding babies rice cereal, feed them a substitute like cream of buckwheat cereal or gluten-free oatmeal.
  • Don't make rice and rice-based foods like gluten-free bread, snacks and cereals the foundation of your gluten-free diet, Substitute gluten-free grains like whole grain amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and sorghum for rice in your diet.
  • Rinsing rice before cooking does not substantially reduce the arsenic content. The cooking method that reduces it by as much as 50 percent is to cook it like you do pasta, boiling it with lots of water and pouring off the water after the rice is cooked.