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Headlines screaming “poisonous rice” might have you ixnaying the widely eaten grain from your meals, but it can still be a beneficial part of your dietary repertoire.
Arsenic is found naturally in the environment, but it can also enter the air, water, and soil from mining and arsenic-containing pesticides. Plants take up arsenic as they grow, and eventually it works its way into your grocery cart. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic has been correlated with greater risk of cancer and heart disease. For most people, food is the primary source of arsenic exposure. Rice seems especially efficient at absorbing arsenic from water and soil, and leaving the bran intact, as with brown rice, increases the grain’s arsenic content. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation linked higher intakes of rice and rice products, such as rice cakes and rice milk, with increased urinary arsenic levels. Still, there is no federal limit for arsenic in rice, and without hard evidence associating rice intake with poor health, the FDA has yet to recommend that Americans change their consumption habits. In fact, a study involving more than 200,000 people published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition failed to find an increased risk for heart disease in those consuming up to five servings of white or brown rice weekly. Additionally, Harvard researchers determined that eating brown rice twice a week can help protect against type 2 diabetes. The benefits of consuming whole-grain rice, such as increased intakes of minerals and fiber, could outweigh the risks of arsenic exposure. Opt for brown basmati rices from California, India, or Pakistan, which a Consumer Reports investigation found have lower arsenic levels than other brown rices. And rinsing rice before cooking and boiling it in a larger volume of water—6 cups water to 1 cup rice—can help slash arsenic levels. Because babies, infants, and toddlers can be more susceptible to arsenic, parents are advised to limit their children’s consumption of rice drinks and also to frequently offer alternatives to rice cereal.
Rotate these nutrient-packed (and gluten-free!) grains with rice to further limit your potential arsenic exposure. Buckwheat Toast the hulled, crushed kernels of this rhubarb relative in a skillet until golden, and then sprinkle over salads for some nutritious crunch. Check out our Buckwheat recipes.Amaranth These tiny grains cook up into a gelatinous consistency, perfect to try as a porridge. Check out our Amaranth recipes.Millet This type of cereal grass adds a toothsome, nutty flavor to soups and veggie burgers. Check out our Millet recipes.THE REALITY Just how much arsenic-containing rice you’d have to eat for it to negatively affect your long-term health remains unknown. The FDA is in the midst of conducting a risk assessment to try to answer that question. Until those numbers are in, there’s no compelling reason to banish rice from your diet. But do vary the grains you consume in order to keep your arsenic intake in check. Investigative Nutritionist Canada-based Matthew Kadey, RD, sets us straight on misleading nutrition claims.