Trading gluten for arsenic-how dangerous are rice based products?


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I have read several articles recently about how the gluten free “trend” is leading to a high exposure to arsenic and mercury.  The culprit?  Rice.

Almost every gluten free product uses white or brown rice as a substitute for wheat flour. Recent reports and news articles state that this increases exposure to arsenic.

From the FDA website:

Arsenic is an element in the Earth’s crust, and is present in water, air, and soil. It exists in two forms, with the inorganic form considered to be the more toxic. The FDA has been monitoring the levels of arsenic in foods for decades and in 2011, after new methods to differentiate the forms of arsenic became available, the agency expanded its testing to help better understand and manage possible arsenic-related risks associated with food consumption in the United States.

Rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods, in part because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops. In April 2016, the FDA proposed an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This level, which is based on the FDA’s assessment of a large body of scientific information, seeks to reduce infant exposure to inorganic arsenic. The agency also has developed advice on rice consumption for pregnant women and the caregivers of infants.

This comparison chart shows sample results of arsenic in rice.

How worried should we be?

From an article on Today’s website:

For those with Celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, a wheat-free diet can be a challenge. And while there are many grain options to choose, rice-based foods and flour substitutes are a popular choice.

But in the past few months, a focus on the presence of trace amounts of arsenic in rice has been a cause for concern for many. Should you be worried?

You might be surprised to know that traces of arsenic are present in many foods, including grains, fruits and vegetables. These tiny amounts come from the plant absorbing arsenic from the soil. While most plants do not absorb much arsenic from the soil, rice does so more readily.

They go on to say:

Last year, the FDA tested 1,300 samples of rice and rice products for arsenic and founds amounts in rice and rice products varying from 0.1 micrograms to 7.2 micrograms of per serving. And amounts vary with serving size — from a full serving (like a cooked cup of rice) to a quarter of a serving (a rice-based snack bar). Documenting the presence in arsenic in various foods is the first step for the FDA. The next step is to do an assessment of any potential long term risk that might ultimately modify current recommendations.

From the current evidence-based science, the FDA indicates that rice can be safely consumed as part of a varied diet by everyone, including pregnant women. Since rice is also a staple of infants and children, they further support the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics to feed their infants and toddlers a variety of grains, including rice cereal for infants.

The message is clear, but may seem less definitive to some consumers. Yes, there are trace amounts of arsenic in rice. No, there is no apparent health risk, and rice can be consumed safely as part of a healthy diet. The key point is “moderation” — and choosing rice as one of the grains in the diet, rather than as an exclusive choice, is a healthful choice.

For those seeking gluten-free foods, here are tips. Always check with your doctor for personal advice:

  • Go for variety. Gluten-free breads, cookies, cakes, flours and other foods are available using chickpeas, corn, potato flour, buckwheat, teff (a nutty-flavored grain), and tapioca, among others. Read the back panel nutrition label carefully when a product says “gluten-free.”

  • You can reduce the trace amounts of arsenic in rice when cooking it at home. Rinse the raw rice thoroughly in water, then cook it the same way as pasta: Use a large amount of water and drain when done (for 1 cup of raw rice, this means boiling in at least 5-6 cups of water).

Most gluten free pre-made foods, flours and mixes have rice flour as the main ingredient.  If you consume a lot of these products, could it make a difference?  I suppose you could have your blood checked for elevated arsenic.  But if you are a healthy adult, I don’t think there is much cause for concern.  These studies are more aimed at infants and toddlers.

I will continue to eat my gluten-free baked goods and snacks, and I will do so without panic.  After all, I am still eating bacon!

8 thoughts on “Trading gluten for arsenic-how dangerous are rice based products?

  1. Very interesting article, I actually read something about arsenic and rice last week. It’s something that will definitely be worth keeping an eye on in future studies, but for now to be honest, I will be doing what you do and try not to worry too much. There are a lot more foods we should be worrying about! 😉

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  2. Very interesting article! Thanks for sharing. In Indonesia, traditionally people cook rice the way you explained it. They boil the rice in a lot of water, then drain the water when the rice is half done. Then they steam the rice in a strainer looking of thing; I am not sure what to call it in English. But this days rice cooker is a popular choice, because of it’s efficiency.

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    • I cook my rice in a 2:1 ratio but after seeing these articles I might start using more water.
      The main issue is gluten free products as they are mostly rice flour based. Thank you for commenting!

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  3. Pingback: Worth a Read! – GlutenFreeChickBlog

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