Arsenic, a naturally occurring element and industrial byproduct, poses a significant health risk to millions of people worldwide when it leaches into drinking water. It’s highly poisonous at high doses, but chronic exposure to lower levels increases the risk of bladder, lung and skin cancer, as well as infertility and possibly diabetes, heart disease and other conditions.
Though this is often thought of as a major problem only in developing countries, such as Bangladesh, the U.S. has arsenic problems of its own. In fact, it’s estimated that over two million Americans drink water from private wells that have high arsenic concentrations. This past year, arsenic made headlines on several occasions for its presence in rice and other foods, too.
Rice test results
In September, Consumer Reports released results of its analysis of 223 rice samples, which included white and brown, organic and conventionally grown, domestic and imported, and brand-name and storebrand rices. It also tested rice-based products, such as rice cereals, beverages, pasta, flour and crackers.
Virtually all were found to contain both inorganic arsenic (a known human carcinogen) and organic arsenic (considered less harmful, but still of concern)—many at “worrisome levels.” In this context, the term “organic” refers to the element’s chemistry, not whether the food was grown organically.
There were wide variations in the findings—after all, there are many different kinds of rice grown all over the world and under different conditions. But some trends emerged: White rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas (where most U.S rice comes from) had more total and inorganic arsenic than rice grown elsewhere, including California, India and Thailand.
And within the same brands, brown rice had more arsenic than white rice (some arsenic is removed when the grain’s outer layer is stripped during processing to make white rice). Preliminary results from a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis of 200 rice products, also released in September, were consistent with those of Consumer Reports.
Organic brown rice syrup has also been in the news in recent months. A study last May from Dartmouth College, in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that cereal bars, toddler formulas and other products made with this sweetener had elevated arsenic levels.
It did not compare organic brown rice syrup to non-organic brown rice syrup, but there’s no reason to think the type of agricultural method used was a factor, according to Brian Jackson, Ph.D., lead author of the study.