It’s downright Victorian, but alas, our rice is rife with arsenic – here’s how to enjoy the grains without the poison.
Victorian women were fond of potions made from ammonia, mercury, and lead to achieve their wan alabaster glow. And although murder by poison was all the rage and feared by many, there was also no shortage of products like Arsenic Complexion Wafers, “simply magical” confections consumed to improve “even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion.”
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.
But as the popularity of rice and its products (rice cakes, rice milk, et cetera) are on the rise, so should concern be for people beyond infants and pregnant women who eat rice on a regular basis. It can be quite toxic and in the European Union, arsenic is classified as a category 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s known to cause cancer in humans.
Rice has around 10 to 20 times more arsenic than other cereal crops because it is grown in flooded fields which make it much easier for arsenic to leave the soil and enter the rice, notes an article by the BBC program Trust Me I’m a Doctor. For the program, Michael Mosley met Professor Andy Meharg from Queen’s University, Belfast, who is an expert on the topic of rice and rice products.
Where the arsenic is high and low
• Basmati rice is lower in arsenic than other kinds of rice.
• Brown rice usually contains more arsenic than white rice because it is found in the husk, which isn't removed in brown rice. (That said, remember that brown rice has more nutrients.)
• Whether rice is grown organically or conventionally does not have an impact on arsenic levels.
• Rice cakes and crackers can contain levels higher than in cooked rice.
• The levels of arsenic found in rice milk are way more than the amounts that is generally allowed in drinking water.
Mosley and Meharg did some fancy footwork to test various arsenic levels as determined by cooking methods. Arsenic leaves the rice for the water when cooking – but if you cook your rice until it’s not swimming or use a rice cooker, the arsenic goes right back into the rice when all is said and done. The solution? Use more water than is required to cook the rice so that there is a leftover reservoir of it where the arsenic can remain. The team explains that when they used 5 times as much water as rice when cooking, only 43% of the arsenic remained in the rice. When they also soaked the rice overnight before cooking and then used the 5:1 ratio, only 18% of the arsenic remained in the rice.
Here is how to cook rice to remove the most arsenic
- Soak your rice overnight – this opens up the grain and allows the arsenic to escape.
- Drain the rice and rinse thoroughly with fresh water.
- For every part rice add 5 parts water and cook until the rice is tender – do not allow it to boil dry.
- Drain the rice and rinse again with hot water to get rid of the last of the cooking water.
And hey, when you're done you can even use that drained arsenic water to splash on your face for that petal-perfect Victorian pallor. Or not.
Updated: September 16, 2019