Organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereals, brown rice, white rice—new tests by Consumer Reports have found that those and other types of rice products on grocery shelves contain arsenic, many at worrisome levels.
Arsenic not only is a potent human carcinogen but also can set up children for other health problems in later life.
Following our January investigation, “Arsenic in Your Juice,” which found arsenic in apple and grape juices, we recently tested more than 200 samples of a host of rice products. They included iconic labels and store brands, organic products and conventional ones; some were aimed at the booming gluten-free market.
The results of our tests were even more troubling in some ways than our findings for juice. In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms. We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern. Moreover, the foods we checked are popular staples, eaten by adults and children alike.
Though rice isn’t the only dietary source of arsenic — some vegetables, fruits, and even water can harbor it — the Environmental Protection Agency assumes there is actually no “safe” level of exposure to inorganic arsenic.
No federal limit exists for arsenic in most foods, but the standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). Keep in mind: That level is twice the 5 ppb that the EPA originally proposed and that New Jersey actually established. Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.
We also discovered that some infant rice cereals, which are often a baby’s first solid food, had levels of inorganic arsenic at least five times more than has been found in alternatives such as oatmeal. Given our findings, we suggest limiting the consumption of rice products.
Our study was a snapshot of the market, with many products purchased in the New York metropolitan area and online, to gauge the extent of arsenic’s presence in everyday foods. It can’t be used for overall conclusions about specific brands. Still, we found important trends:
- White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which account for 76 percent of domestic rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere.
- Within any single brand of rice we tested, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were always higher for brown rice than for white.
- People who ate rice had arsenic levels that were 44 percent greater than those who had not, according to our analysis of federal health data. And certain ethnic groups were more highly affected, including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and a broad category that includes Asians.
- Reducing arsenic in food is feasible. We examined the efforts of two food companies, including Nature’s One, trying to tackle the problem and learned about methods being used to try to reduce arsenic in products.
- Based on these findings, our experts are asking the Food and Drug Administration to set limits for arsenic in rice products and fruit juices as a starting point.