So there I was, lunching on leftovers at my desk on Monday afternoon, when the news advisory from Consumer Reports arrived and made me doubly glad to have selected Sallie’s grated-zucchini pastitsio over my own tofu/mushroom stroganoff.
First, because I had writing to do, and the pastitsio’s heavenly melding of macaroni, cream and eggs is so light that there was little chance of it inducing a post-luncheon nap.
Second, because I would probably have ladled that rich stroganoff over a couple of cups of austere brown rice. And based on new figures that Consumer Reports is publishing this morning, that might have put me at my recommended weekly intake of arsenic in just one sitting.
For nearly two years now, CR has been publicizing the risks of arsenic levels in rice and various rice-based foods, while pressing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prepare official dietary guidelines for the rice-eating public.
FDA is still working on that project, so in the meantime CR has issued its own weekly-consumption guidelines, based on arsenic content detected in extensive testing by both the FDA’s labs and its own.
2 cups of rice per week, if you’re adult
And, folks, the advice is more than a little sobering: Adults should eat no more than 1½ to 2 cups of cooked rice per week, and children less than half that much.
Notice I didn’t specify brown rice, and neither does CR. Brown rice has gotten much of the attention since the arsenic issue hit the headlines, no doubt partly because of what strikes news editors as irony: People concerned enough about diet to be moving toward whole grains had been inadvertently dosing themselves with extra arsenic.
It is true that brown rice’s arsenic content is higher — as much as 80 percent higher — than white rice’s, because the soil-and water-borne metal accumulates in the outer bran layer that’s removed in polishing.
But polishing leaves rice with more than half the arsenic load of unpolished rice, and CR now recommends that we watch our intake of all rice and rice products — including white basmati and sushi rice, which have the lowest arsenic content.
Bear in mind that the risk here is not one of acute poisoning; nobody’s going to keel over from the arsenic in even a really big bowl of rice. The issue is arsenic’s links to elevated risks of bladder, lung and skin cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Because such risks rise with both length and level of exposure, public-health authorities are especially concerned about children’s arsenic intake. CR’s advice is that
Children should rarely eat hot rice cereal or rice pasta. Our analysis found that those foods can have much more arsenic than our 2012 data showed. Just one serving of either could put kids over the maximum amount of rice they should have in a week.
Rice cakes supply close to the weekly limit in one serving. Rice drinks are also high in arsenic, and children younger than five shouldn’t drink them instead of milk.
Mix-and-match point system
CR has come up with a point system that assigns values to various foods based on demonstrated arsenic content and typical serving sizes, and suggests that consumers limit themselves to eating seven points’ worth per week.
For an adult, that means ¼ cup raw or about 1½ to 2 cups of cooked brown rice per week. (Rice volume expands by three- or fourfold in cooking, depending on the method; one arsenic-reduction strategy is to use a large volume of water and then drain the cooked rice, which at least for me results in less volume and fluffiness).
Or two cups of rice milk. Or a cup of rice pudding plus one to three rice cookies, depending on size. Or, mix and match to your heart’s content, if not your stomach’s.
Here are example point scores for some of the most common items:
For most whole rice, CR figures that ¼ cup of uncooked rice should count as 5½ arsenic points for a child and 3½ points for an adult.
For hot rice cereal, ¼ cup uncooked, score 8¼ points for children (so more than the full-week total in one bowl); 3½ points for adults. A cup of ready-to-eat rice cereal is rated at 4½ points for children, 2¼ points for adults.
Rice drinks, 1 cup — 4 points for kids, 2 points for adults.
Rice pasta, 2 ounces uncooked — 7¼ points for kids, 3 points for adults.
Rice crackers, 16-18 — 2¾ points for kids, 1¼ for adults.
There are additional ratings for products like cake and brownie mixes, pie crusts and power bars. Which brings us to another aspect of the concerns over the arsenic loads in rice — their expanding presence in a whole range of baked goods and prepared foods as a consequence of the health-minded move many are making to reduce or eliminate gluten intake.
Other grains for cutting gluten
Recognizing that rice in all its forms is now filling in for wheat, barley, rye and certain wheat-like “ancient grains,” CR advises that some kinds of rice are preferable to others.
So is rice grown in certain regions; evidence suggests that rice grown in the former cottonfields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas has more arsenic because the soil and water still contain residues of arsenic-based insecticides once used to control cotton pests.
White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S., on average have half of the arsenic content of most other types of rice. … Based on our data, we calculated that consumers could have about twice as many weekly servings as we previously recommended if that was the only rice product someone ate. For adults, that adds up to 4½ servings per week; children could have 2¾ servings.
This is one area where organic vs. conventional growing methods don’t really matter, because the arsenic being taken up by watery rice plants wasn’t deposited via pesticides during its growth cycle; the stuff’s been waiting in the ground for decades. However, there is good news for adventurous grain seekers:
The gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet and polenta or grits had negligible levels of arsenic. Bulgur, barley and farro, which contain gluten, also have very little arsenic.
Quinoa (also gluten-free) had average arsenic levels comparable to those of other alternative grains. But some samples had quite a bit more. Though they were still much lower than any of the rices, those spikes illustrate the importance of varying the types of grains you eat.
Last week I tried out some millet patties from a recipe I found on Epicurious, counting the result as proof that almost anything can be made kind of tasty by adding enough good olive oil, shallots, chopped olives, sundried tomatoes and capers.
Gotta say, I’m rating them more favorably now.
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Although Consumer Reports is pursuing something of a crusade on this issue, it’s hardly the only outfit to register concern about arsenic in rice. As noted above, the FDA is also engaged and so, for example, is the Environmental Working Group.