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.
In their ongoing analysis of arsenic in our food supply, Consumer Reports researchers analyzed 223 samples of rice and rice-based products typically found at grocery stores in the U.S. Consumer Reports is a non-profit, independent consumer safety organization founded in 1936.
The results of Consumer Reports magazine analysis were recently published in the November 2012 issue, Arsenic in Your Food. Virtually all rice products tested contained arsenic, from low levels to potentially toxic levels.
What Is Arsenic and How Can Eating It Hurt Us?
Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines arsenic as a natural element (mineral) that occurs in water, soil, the air and our 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.
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, excess exposure to arsenic can affect brain development.
Rice isn't the only food that contains significant levels of arsenic. Leafy vegetables, fruit, fruit juices, and seafood are also sources of dietary exposure to 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.
In the south-central U.S., rice fields have been established on fields once used to grow cotton. Pesticides that contained arsenic were used on cotton crops and persisted in soil and groundwater. This explains why rice grown in this region of the U.S. has higher levels of arsenic than rice grown in California.
Is There a Federal Safety Standard for Arsenic Levels in Drinking Water or Food?
The Environmental Protection Agency has set safety standards for arsenic in drinking water at 10 ppb (parts per billion), but no agency has set safety standards for arsenic levels in food.
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.
People with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and dermatitis herpetaformis are prescribed a gluten-free diet, which, under these conditions is a medical 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 typically, although not always, the main ingredient in gluten-free baking mixes, commercially prepared gluten-free baked goods including bread, cookies, brownies and cakes, gluten-free snack products including crackers and chips, gluten-free rice pasta and rice flour is frequently called for in gluten-free recipes. In other words, people on gluten-free diets may consume several servings of rice daily, often as rice flour, rice cereal products, and brown rice syrup.
What Researchers Found:
- Rice grown in the southern U.S. is found to have higher concentrations of arsenic than rice grown in California.
- According to the USA Rice Federation, a national organization representing the rice industry, almost half of the rice grown in the U.S. is grown in Arkansas.
- 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.
- 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 Consumer Reports article also notes that "Researchers at
- The Minnesota Department of Health says that "Most people consume about 6 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per day from food and water."
Note that this statistic does not reflect the amount of rice that people on gluten-free diets consume.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is currently in the process of analyzing 1200 samples of rice. According to information on the FDA website, when the results of their analysis are complete the agency will decide whether or not to make changes to their current position on the safe consumption of rice, "Based on data and scientific literature available now, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains."
Researchers at the Dartmouth Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center reported that “many people in the U.S. may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of arsenic through rice consumption.”
Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst at Environmental Working Group, says “Arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans, and FDA needs to do everything possible to reduce people’s exposure. Unfortunately, the agency has spent the past 20 years testing foods without making any recommendations on what consumers can do to reduce their risk. 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.”
What Can People on Gluten-Free Diets Do to Reduce Exposure to Arsenic in Rice Products?
While Americans wait for the FDA to research, review and potentially set safety standards for arsenic in our food supply, there are several proactive things we can do.
- Educate yourself! Read as much as you can on this issue so you can make informed decisions about the safety of eating rice and rice products on a gluten-free diet.
- Assess how much rice you and your family are consuming. If rice is a major part of your gluten-free diet, replace rice with alternative gluten-free foods.
- Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. If you eat rice, substitute white rice for brown rice in your diet.
- 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.
- Read the Consumer Report article and learn which brands of rice and rice products tested to contain the highest and the lowest levels of arsenic.
- If you do eat whole rice, follow the recommendations of Consumer Reports and only eat 1 1/4 to 2 servings, once a 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.
- If you choose to eat cooked rice, follow our recommendations and rinse rice several times before cooking it. Then cook it with lots of water that you pour off after the rice is cooked, much the way pasta is cooked.