Rice, with a Side of . . . Arsenic?

February 17, 2012


Yesterday, I woke up to an internet news story about organic baby formulas containing arsenic.  Fifteen hours of research later, this is what I have to tell you about the situation.  My brand-new blog is not necessarily ready for public viewing, and I honestly cannot even operate WordPress well at this point.  As far as subscriptions go, all I know is that if you click on “register” I receive an e-mail with your e-mail address.  Despite the fact that my site is not ready-to-go, I wanted to get this news to you as soon as possible—the safety of our children is involved . . . and, most people I know like rice.


Arsenic in Rice

More and more research is uncovering the fact that our food supply is tainted with arsenic.  According to recent studies, when you consume rice, you may be consuming levels of arsenic higher than those considered safe for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  There are two types of arsenic:  “organic arsenic” and “inorganic arsenic.”  In this case the “organic” vs. “inorganic” is a chemistry term and not an indicator of whether or not the food was grown according to organic farming standards.  Both types of arsenic have been found in our food supply.

All arsenic is recognized as a carcinogen by the EPA.  However, the inorganic type of arsenic is particularly dangerous.  In addition to its connection with several types of cancers, low-level inorganic arsenic exposure has been linked to many other serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and Diabetes Type 2.  Furthermore, researchers caution that even the organic form of arsenic appears to be harmful with repeated, low-level exposure.  Both types of arsenic have been found in rice, but it is the levels of inorganic arsenic that have researchers concerned.

According to Andrew Meharg, the chair of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, rice is the largest dietary source of inorganic arsenic in the U.S. and Europe.  According to Meharg’s research, arsenic levels vary according to the geographic area in which the rice was grown.  Rice grown in the United States and Japan generally has higher levels of arsenic than rice grown in other countries.  When considering rice grown in the U.S., arsenic levels also seem to vary according to geography.  Rice grown in California has lower arsenic levels than rice grown in the southern U.S. states.

Arsenic levels in rice also appear to vary according to rice variety, per Meharg.  Brown rice is generally higher in arsenic (both organic and inorganic) than is white rice.  Meharg attributes this to differences in plant physiology.  In fact, the physiology of rice plants overall is probably why rice is taking up relatively large amounts of arsenic compared to other plants.  The fact that rice grows in flooded areas is also a contributing factor, according to Meharg, as water can be polluted with arsenic.

Where is the arsenic coming from?  The arsenic making its way into our food supply is thought to be coming from several sources.  Some arsenic occurs naturally in soil and water.  However, additional arsenic makes its way into the food supply when arsenic-containing pesticides are applied to plants, or plants are irrigated with water that is heavily contaminated with arsenic from such pesticides.  The high levels of arsenic in the soil of the southern U.S. states has been attributed to the large amounts of arsenic-containing pesticides used to control boll weevils during the era of cotton-growing.

In addition to agricultural pollution via pesticides, the arsenic poisoning our soil and water is also a result of industrial pollution.  Arsenic is a known byproduct of copper smelting, mining, and coal burning.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, industry in the U.S. releases thousands of pounds of arsenic into the environment every year.  The Council notes that industrial pollution and agricultural pollution are the reasons that even our drinking water is now polluted with arsenic.  Since guidelines regarding water used to irrigate crops are much less stringent than guidelines for drinking water, it is easy to see how levels of arsenic in water used in agriculture could be quite high.

The EPA limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion.  However, the EPA has not set limits on arsenic levels in foods or other beverages.   Meharg’s research has found levels as high as 2000 parts per billion in rice grown in Japan and the U.S.  It is true that one would have to eat a lot of rice to reach the level of 10 grams of arsenic, which is the lifetime level currently thought to lead to increased cancer risk, according to Christopher States, a toxicologist at the University of Kentucky in Louisville.  However, the concern is that most packaged foods and cereals, including the organic and whole grain varieties, contain some form of rice.  When one considers that most U.S. citizens eat lots of commercial carbohydrate foods, it is feasible that low-level exposure to arsenic could occur over time.

Recently, brown rice syrup, thought to be a lower glycemic impact sweetener, has made its way into many health foods.  Luna Bars and Cliff Bars, which my husband and I used to consume daily, prior to our change to a more traditional, whole foods-based diet, are sweetened with brown rice syrup, in addition to containing brown rice.  Researchers at Dartmouth University, estimate that 50% of energy bars presently on the market contain some form of rice, and that products known as “energy shots,” marketed to endurance athletes, also largely contain rice ingredients.  Their research, described below, found inorganic arsenic in energy bars and “energy shots” containing rice ingredients.

Any health threats associated with arsenic consumption through food would be of particular concern when it comes to children.  Due to children’s smaller bodies, they are far more susceptible to damage from all toxic substances.  Arsenic is no exception to this rule.

In an article published yesterday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the Dartmouth University researchers claim that a particular brand of infant formula they tested, which had organic brown rice syrup as its main ingredient, had six times the amount of inorganic arsenic allowed in drinking water by the EPA.  Additionally, two infant formulas they tested, which had organic brown rice syrup as their main ingredient, were found to contain levels of arsenic 20 times higher than any of the formulas they tested that did not contain organic brown rice syrup.  When you consider the facts that babies typically get formula as their sole source of nutrition, and that the EPA standards for drinking water were not written with tiny bodies in mind, these findings are especially frightening.  Furthermore, many babies also receive rice cereal as their first solid food.

After reading the preceding, I was nauseated.  The Dartmouth researchers did not release any brand names in the journal article detailing their study, nor have they released the brand names to any of the news agencies who have interviewed them as of the time I am writing.  However, the brand of organic formula that I fed my daughter, Nature’s One brand, Baby’s Only formula, did use organic brown rice syrup instead of the high fructose corn syrup used in most other formulas.  As far as I know, they were the only company using brown rice syrup when I was forced to choose a formula back in 2010, because I could not make enough breastmilk to feed my daughter.

I was somewhat relieved to see a statement on the Nature’s One website today noting that their brown rice syrup is made from rice that is organically grown in California and meets Quality Assurance International’s organic standards (which are more strict than the USDA’s organic standards).  This at least suggests that the rice ingredients in their formula would be free of the arsenic contamination from added pesticides.  However, the fact that, as far as I know, Nature’s One is the only company using brown rice syrup still has me suspecting that the formula in the study was Nature’s One.

Nature’s One also states that they will test arsenic levels for every lot of organic brown rice syrup and rice oligodextrin they use to make their formula.  Whether this testing was something they did in the past, and applies to the formula my daughter consumed is unclear from the statement.  The link to the statement opens a PDF file.  The text of the PDF file does not contain a date.  Using the “document properties” function in Adobe Reader, I was able to see that the document appears to have been created at 9:36 a.m. yesterday, seemingly in response to news stories regarding the Dartmouth study.

Regardless of the exact timing of the statement made by Nature’s One, I am glad to read that they either were or will be taking steps to assure that they remain the safest brand of formula on the market.  Being that the only commercially available alternative to baby formula made with brown rice syrup is formula made with high fructose corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup has been found to be contaminated with mercury, I still think I chose the lesser evil as far as store-bought formula is concerned.  Of course, my plan was for her to be fed all breastmilk, but my endocrine system was apparently not on board.  My daughter consistently refused organic rice cereal, so at least I do not have that on my conscience.

Vegetarians are another group that comes to mind now that I have learned about the high levels of arsenic in rice.  I was a vegetarian for five years, and was mostly vegetarian for 19 years.  A mainstay of my diet, and the diets of most vegetarians I know, was whole grain brown rice.  Additionally, many vegetarians, along with lactose intolerant individuals, tend to consume large amounts of rice milk.  Rice is also frequently consumed by individuals who have allergies to other grains, particularly those with Celiac Disease.

Recently, my daughter began having allergic reactions to many foods, including rice.  She is now on a low allergen diet and rice is not allowed.  However, for the year-and-a-half prior to that, we often fed her what we thought were healthy, whole grain, organic cereals and granola bars.  Most of these contained rice in some form.  She also ate organic whole grain brown rice quite often.   The whole grain brown rice we fed her was grown in California, but I have no idea where the rice in the whole grain, organic cereals and granola bars came from.  When I look back and examine just how many of the “healthier” commercial products that my family used to eat contained rice, in its many forms, it is clear that we were probably getting at least some rice at most meals.  I suspect that many health conscious American families are not all that different from the way we were in terms of their rice consumption.  This is troublesome to me.


What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves from Arsenic in Rice?

While researchers like the group at Dartmouth University and Professor Meharg of the University of Aberdeen are busy urging regulatory agencies to start monitoring and establishing safety guidelines for levels of arsenic in foods and beverages aside from water, it seems it is up to us to keep ourselves and our families safe.  This is not to say that citizens should not urge decision-makers to take action.  We should definitely e-mail the FDA to tell them we are concerned.

Meharg emphasizes that monitoring intake of rice products is of particular importance as far as babies and children are concerned.  The Dartmouth researchers note that a baby who consumes at least one serving of rice cereal per day may exceed the daily arsenic limit of .17 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, which is the mcg/kg limit that can be derived from the current EPA standards for drinking water.   According to published research by Meharg, rice milk can expose children and adults to levels of arsenic greater than those allowed in drinking water.  Meharg’s research also states that crackers and cereals made with rice seem to be significant sources of arsenic exposure.  This is quite alarming when you consider many babies and toddlers probably eat several of these rice-containing products in a single day, and may also have been fed a baby formula containing organic brown rice syrup, like my daughter was.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, in the case of a single exposure, arsenic is generally excreted from the body within a couple of days, aside from residual amounts that remain in the hair, nails, teeth, and bones.  However, recall that the cancer risks associated with arsenic (stated above) mention a theoretical “lifetime limit.”  This means that the carcinogenicity of arsenic has to do with cumulative exposure over the lifespan, regardless of the fact that most people can quickly eliminate arsenic from a single exposure.

It could be years before the government puts measures in place to protect our families from arsenic contamination in foods.  Accordingly, it seems prudent for us to monitor our families’ intake of rice and rice-containing foods beginning immediately.  It also seems advisable to buy organically grown rice, since organic rice is at least free of arsenic from pesticides applied directly to the plants—obviously, even organic rice will not be completely free of the arsenic that pollutes our water and soil.  Additionally, given that rice grown in California has been found to have the lowest levels of arsenic of domestically grown rice, I would recommend that you try to purchase rice grown in California.  Prior to starting our low-allergen diet, my family ate the Lundberg brand of organic brown rice, which was grown in California.  This brand is widely available at both grocery stores and health food stores.  However, given that brown rice generally has higher levels of arsenic than white rice, perhaps it is advisable to choose white rice grown in California, rather than consuming all brown rice.  Some imported rices have also been found to be relatively low in arsenic:  basmati rice imported from India and Pakistan and jasmine rice from Thailand.

The presence of rice and rice products in kids’ snack foods is yet another argument for feeding children organic vegetables, organic fruits, or mini-sized, multiple-food-group meals as snacks.  This is what we have done since eliminating processed foods from our family’s diet.  Since our daughter can be ravenously hungry on a moment’s notice, and two-year-olds are not good at waiting, we keep chopped, steamed organic carrots and green beans, and chunked, cooked, pastured organic chicken in the fridge at all times.  She does not care if we serve it cold . . . and, with no Luna Bars and Cliff Bars in the house these days, her parents have been known to eat it cold too.



ABC News has released a news story today that claims the Organic Formula in question was indeed Baby’s Only (read: life-long guilt for me).  The story also claims that the FDA is looking into arsenic in our food supply.  The doctor interviewed in the video clips that load on the page for the ABC News story, Dr. Richard Besser, claims that adults should not worry too much about their rice intake.  I thoroughly disagree with this statement.  There is simply not enough evidence for Besser to make such a claim at this point.  I suspect that once the FDA does get more involved with examining the arsenic in our food supply, we will see recommended weekly limits for consumption of particular, high-arsenic rice products–just as we have seen recommended weekly limits for consumption of certain fish, due to mercury contamination.  In the meantime, I urge you to take charge of your health, read labels, and limit your rice consumption.  The doctor on ABC News will be nowhere around if you develop a health condition related to the arsenic in the rice products he told you not to worry too much about.  His statement at the end of the first statement of the clip, “It will be safe,” is absolutely unfounded.  Researchers who have made a career of studying arsenic contamination and U.S. regulatory agencies do not even know with certainty what levels of arsenic are safe (the ABC story even mentions this fact); therefore, there is no way that a physician health editor for ABC News can know what is safe.  Notice, however, that even Besser, who feels adults do not have to watch their rice consumption, warns that the arsenic in rice could be harmful for children.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah, TheHealthyHomeEconomist February 17, 2012 at 19:13

Please note that there is a healthy, safe alternative to the dangers of commercial and organic powdered formulas and that would be homemade formula. I have a very detailed 20 minute videoclass plus written recipe/transcript on my blog on how exactly to do this. It only takes about 10 minutes to make 1 batch (36 ounces) and the cost even with premium ingredients is about HALF the cost of organic formula so it is very affordable. This recipe follows the recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation which has produced this recipe (both milk based and hypoallergenic) to as closely mimic human breastmilk as possible:


Carmen Z. September 10, 2013 at 17:14

Your site has the best info on arsenic and rice. You posted back in February of 2012 and said your site was relatively nbew…but I found so much great content there. It was a shock to hear that even organic rice may contain arsenic. Thanks for defining the difference between organic and non-organic arsenic and how it has nothing to do with the way plants are cultivated. I’ve been eating brown rice for many years. Always thought that white was “bad.” Thought that eating brown rice instead of white rice was a better choice because of the fiber. Now I am finding out that white rice is better especially if you’re an exerciser your body will tolerate glucose that you get from white starches like white rice. This news is a bummer since I personally enjoy the taste of brown rice better than white. The saddest part of all this is the children who have grown up on rice cereal.


Nicole, The Non-Toxic Nurse September 10, 2013 at 17:27

Thanks for stopping by, Carmen. Yes, I too used to enjoy brown rice and thought it was better for me than white. The arsenic issue puts a new twist on it, doesn’t it? Yes, it is scary to think that babies could be receiving large doses of arsenic through rice cereals.


Bert Suttle December 23, 2015 at 10:31

Excellent article on brown rice! I have been vegan for health reasons now for 6 years with lots of brown rice the first 4 years. When my blood levels for arsenic rose to 99%tile I quit the brown rice and it has dropped significantly.


Nicole, The Non-Toxic Nurse January 14, 2016 at 15:56

Thanks for sharing your experience, Bert. I am very glad you caught your rising arsenic level and were able to address it.


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