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10 Ways to Get Arsenic Out of Your (and Your Kids’) Diet

by Sonya Lunder and Dawn Undurraga, of the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Although scientists and government regulators have long known about the ever-present threat of arsenic in our diet and water, it was unsettling when two major reports came out on the same day last week, reminding us of the risk and the need to do what we can to minimize it.

Yes, arsenic. It’s a naturally occurring mineral with a long history as a murder weapon, and, paradoxically, as a medicine, too. In some parts of the world, contamination levels are so high in food and water as to cause epidemics of skin, bladder, and lung cancer. In the United States, the effects might be harder to see, but they are still there. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that people drinking arsenic-contaminated water at 10 parts per billion would have a 1-in-300 risk of developing cancer over their lifetimes. Recent research suggests that people ingest about that much arsenic in a just a half-cup serving of rice, not an unusual amount for millions of Americans.

The two new reports came from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the highly regarded Consumer Reports magazine, and both focused on the worrisome amounts of arsenic in rice and popular rice-based processed foods.

We agree that there’s reason to be concerned. Many rice-based foods and some fruit juices have arsenic levels much higher than are allowed in drinking water. And contrary to some denials from the food industry, the contamination does include the form of arsenic that poses a serious risk to our health. It’s long overdue for federal agencies to set health-protective limits on arsenic in food, but they are not moving quickly.

In the meantime, here are 10 easy-to-use tips on how you can reduce your, and your family’s, exposure:

1. Limit rice consumption. Try alternative grains like quinoa, barley, grits/polenta, couscous, or bulgur wheat.

The testing done by Consumer Reports confirmed that rice has much higher concentrations of arsenic than other grains, fruits, and vegetables. That’s partly because rice is sometimes grown in fields that have been treated with arsenic-based pesticides in the past, but in many cases it’s because rice plants have a natural tendency to take up and concentrate naturally occurring arsenic in the soil and water. The FDA says it needs to test 1,000 more rice samples to clarify which rice-growing areas present the greatest risk of contamination. But consumers can take protective steps while the FDA collects data and ponders regulation—a process that could take years.

2. If you’re preparing rice, rinse it thoroughly. Boil brown rice in a lot of water (as you do pasta).

There’s good research indicating that you can lower the amount of arsenic in rice by 30 to 40 percent if you take this simple step (the more water the better). Unfortunately, white rice doesn’t hold up well to this kind of cooking, but you can reduce arsenic levels somewhat by rinsing white rice before you cook it.

3. Vary your diet. Look for alternatives to rice-based processed foods; turn to breakfast cereals, rice flour, rice pasta, rice cakes, and crackers instead.

Growing awareness that many people are sensitive to the gluten in wheat-based processed foods has led to a proliferation of rice-based products, but they’re not the only gluten-free option. Good alternatives to Rice Krispies–type breakfast cereals include toasted oats, puffed corn, or whole grains like millet. You can also find flour mixes that contain no rice or gluten for baking.

4. Limit products that list rice syrup as a sweetener.

You don’t think of rice as a component of snack and nutrition bars, but a recent study by scientists at Dartmouth College found high arsenic levels in processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup, which are often aimed at the natural foods market. EWG has concerns about the study and its interpretation in the media, but the underlying issue of brown rice syrup remains. Read labels to avoid this sweetener wherever possible.

5. Check your drinking water.

Arsenic taints drinking water in many parts of the United States. Check EWG’s Tap Water Database to see if it’s been detected in your water. If you drink well water, contact your local health department to find out if arsenic could be a problem in your well, or get it tested—it’s not expensive and it’s worth the investment.

What parents can do to protect babies and children:

6. Instead of rice cereal as the first solid food for babies, try orange vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and squash, bananas, and avocados.

Parents were once advised to start infants with fortified rice cereals, which were touted as non-allergenic and nutritive, but nutritional guidance is shifting. With some exceptions, parents are no longer being encouraged to delay introducing potentially allergenic foods. Soft fruits, vegetables, or even meats are great first sources of complementary nutrients for a breast- or formula-fed baby.

7. Switch to non-rice baby cereals, such as oatmeal or mixed grains.

Powdered cereals are convenient and often used to thicken baby purees, but Consumer Reports found more than 95 parts per billion of arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested, nearly 10 times the legal limit for drinking water. Look for non-rice whole grain or oat cereals, or make your own by blending oats in a food processor and then cooking them with water.

8. Limit certain fruit juices to a maximum of one-half to one cup a day.

Arsenic-based pesticides were used on fruit orchards in the early 1900s, and soil contamination remains an ongoing source of arsenic in tree fruits and grapes. Testing shows that some samples of apple, grape, and pear juices and juice blends have moderate amounts of arsenic. And there’s another reason that pediatricians recommend limiting any and all juice in children’s diets: They’re high in sugar and can crowd out other foods that provide essential nutrients.

9. Avoid brown rice syrup as a sweetener in processed foods for kids.

The arsenic in rice is concentrated in rice syrup, which is sometimes used as a sweetener in snack bars, non-dairy beverages, and one brand of toddler formula. In previous testing, the one toddler formula made with rice syrup, Nature’s Gate toddler formula, had high concentrations of arsenic in its dairy- and soy-based formulas. Consumer Reports noted that the company has recently found a source of rice syrup that is processed to remove arsenic for its dairy-based formula. (Look for use-by dates of January 2014 for Dairy with DHA and ARA Formula, or July 2015 for Dairy.) Apparently, the company has not yet addressed the issue of arsenic in its soy formula.

10. Do not use rice milk as a dairy substitute for cow’s milk.

Britain’s Food Safety Authority cautions parents to avoid rice milk as a dairy alternative for toddlers ages 1 to 4½. Consumer Reports tested two common brands for arsenic and found that all samples exceeded EPA’s drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion. The range in rice milk was 17 to 70 parts per billion.

Look for other non-dairy drinks and make sure they don’t list rice syrup as a sweetener. In many cases, dairy-sensitive children can be given water and other dietary sources of calcium instead of a highly processed dairy substitute.

Sonya Lunder is a senior research analyst for the Environmental Working Group. Sonya holds a Masters of Public Health in environmental health sciences from UC-Berkeley . Prior to joining EWG in 2002, Sonya managed a community health intervention at a Superfund site, and worked for California’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch.

Dawn Undurraga, nutritionist, joined EWG after completing her Master’s in Nutrition Communication at Tufts University and her dietetic internship to become a Registered Dietitian. While interning at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion during the formulation of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Dawn became fascinated with the intersection of nutrition research and policy. Prior to joining EWG, Dawn worked in both clinical and surveillance cancer research in California.

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21 Responses to 10 Ways to Get Arsenic Out of Your (and Your Kids’) Diet

  1. robin September 25, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    Does this warning extend to organically grown rice?

  2. heatherhurlock September 25, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    Yes, even organic rice. Lundberg rice, for example, has been undergoing a three-year test. So far they’ve found their rice products to average 95 ppb of inorganic arsenic. See: http://www.lundberg.com/Info/Arsenic/productfaqs.aspx

  3. M. Vijay Lakshmi September 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Does boiling white rice in lots of water and then draining the water help? Will rice lose all its nutrients by cooking rice this way?

  4. Margie September 27, 2012 at 2:52 am #

    Pls read

  5. therobynnest September 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    I’ve asked the maker of Mum-Mums whether their product contains arsenic and they responded that the problem is only with American rice (which is not true– it was Indian and Italian, too, according to the report) and that their rice doesn’t have this problem because it’s Chinese. Can this be true? They followed up with this comment 3 days ago: “Baby Mum-Mum is tested for organic & inorganic arsenic on a regular basis, as well as tested for a number of other substances. Total arsenic levels (organic & inorganic combined) in Baby Mum-Mum consistently measure below 0.5 parts per million, making the product perfectly safe. I hope this helps put you at ease.”

  6. Disputo September 28, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    “Total arsenic levels (organic & inorganic combined) in Baby Mum-Mum consistently measure below 0.5 parts per million, making the product perfectly safe.”

    Uh, 0.5 parts per million is 500 parts per BILLION, and the article notes that a mere 95 parts per BILLION, is ten times the legal limit for arsenic in water. So, it sounds like Baby Mum-mum is less than perfectly safe.

  7. Sharon McCune September 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I don’t understand section 3. You suggest replacing rice with rice flour, rice pasta and rice crackers. How does that help us to avoid rice? Also, from research that our doctor has done, I would hesitate to switch to Chinese products. Almost all the supplements, teas, etc. from China appear to be suspect due to the amount of pollution inherent there.

  8. Therobynnest September 28, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Disputo, I think you’re moving your decimal in the wrong direction.

  9. Therobynnest September 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Never mind, sorry — as soon as I said that I got your point. Here’s the issue– is the EPA only referring to inorganic arsenic in their .01 parts per million max? Or combined? The companies I talked to (mum mum and enjoy life) both gave me their totals of them combined and they seem to feel that the level in food can be much higher than that of water, I’m guessing because we consume water all day long. Here is enjoy life’s response to me:

    Since the USA FDA has not established acceptable levels of arsenic in foods, we have to use the Western European scale. Several countries like the UK and Australia use a 1 part per million (1ppm) limit for Arsenic in rice. We tested our bars and granola for arsenic and got results less than 0.2 ppm. All of our products are coming in much lower than the acceptable levels in Western Europe.

  10. Selin September 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    I don’t understand #3 either.

  11. Rose Torossian September 29, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    Is there arsenic in bulgur?

  12. Dan Feinstein October 1, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Nobody is catching that a lot of the areas where rice is grown and found to have high readings of arsenic, are in fact areas that are doing huge amounts of natural gas fracking. Arsenic in water aquifers, rivers and streams, is a major side effect to tracking and only one of thousands of contaminants that results from the ‘safe’, ‘clean’ tracking technology.

    If you simply do a web search for rice growing areas in the US and then compare to natural gas fracking maps of those areas, you’ll see the obvious.

    This method is works for comparing the ‘mysterious’ earthquake reports that are happening so frequently to areas of dense fracking production.

  13. Martha October 6, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    I am tired of oatmeal being suggested for everything,. It is the most awful tasting and textured cereal there is.

  14. Lee October 6, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Just as I find a filler food while losing weight. something/one daps that. I have tried quiona, yeck…brown rice ..ok. barley..no comment you can only eat so many fruits and veggies. Anyone have any other suggestions. I was doing well to down from 240 to 229 in 27 days. AND I have my first grandbabe on the way.

  15. Gohar December 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Is there such thing as a list of countries which grow rice with acceptably low arsenic levels? Ever since I have read about this problem I have stopped consuming rice, and its not all that difficult, especially when you know why you are doing it. Yet, I would want to use it if I can find “safe rice”, any information on this?

    All this information is much appreciated, many thanks!

  16. Gohar December 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    And my the way, what about fresh apples, is that a concern?

  17. Carol Fair April 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Thank you for your hard work at helping us all be informed consumers. Please keep us updated!

  18. Angela Jimenez September 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    I would like to see a reply to all the questions asked in the comment section if possible. Can you post your replies author? Thanks!

  19. Kim December 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Thanks for such an informative and easy-to-read article. What about the microwaveable rice? Does that method of cooking do anything to lower arsenic levels?

  20. Marilynn July 11, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    you suggest replacing rice with rice flour, rice pasta and rice crackers. How does that reduce the arsenic? I too am questioning Chinese foods because of the pollution there. I read India’s basmati rice is OK.. you say no? Can’t trust all information out there?

  21. Marilynn July 11, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    I also read somewhere that quinoa is not a safe source of arsenic. Any truth to that?

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