Monday, November 9, 2015

Is There Arsenic In Your Rice?

Brown Rice (image via Wikipedia)

Over the past several years there has been an active discussion about whether the arsenic that is found in various crops is of significant health concern.  Arsenic occurs naturally in many soils, and it is taken up particularly by rice.  In the US the FDA is still conducting a full-blown risk assessment; in the mean time they have issued a few cautious guidelines .  To the extent that arsenic is a concern (and I believe the jury is still out), it is not something that differs between conventional and organic.  There are some differences by the type of rice (basmati, jasmine etc), and probably by geography (but the FDA is not yet prepared to make generalizations about that).

There has also been rice/arsenic research going on in Europe and a progress report about that has just been published in Horizon - the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  I've recently agreed to an article sharing arrangement with Horizon in which I will highlight and link to agriculture related articles that are of potential interest to the readers of Applied Mythology.  From time to time they may also do the same for articles I write that involve EU research.

The Horizon article describes four areas of research touching on the arsenic and rice question.  The first is an evaluation of arsenic levels in various samples of rice and rice-based foods in the UK.  This is in anticipation of an upcoming change in EU regulations that will set 0.1 ppm as the maximum allowable level of inorganic arsenic in foods.   Many samples were above that new threshold which is 1/2 of the prior CODEX (International standard) threshold.  The basis for the new level was a risk assessment which relied heavily on assumptions about the ratio of dangerous inorganic arsenic relative to organic forms.

Horizon also covers research in Spain, on how cultural practices, regarding water and fertilizer management, can make significant differences in the final arsenic levels.  Perhaps in time this will help farmers achieve the new, low standards.  Another research program is investigating the processes of bio-methylation and bio-volatilization which are currently poorly understood, but which may someday offer ways to minimize final arsenic levels.

The other research studies how cooking methods influence arsenic levels.  For instance cooking in excess water and draining (as is common with pasta) can remove quite a bit of arsenic.  That is of most utility for brown rice because for fortified white rice that process significantly diminishes the nutrient value of the food.

You can see more interesting detail in the Horizon post including links to the individual research efforts.

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