Is Brown Rice Hazardous to Our Health?

Dear Beth,

I read an article recently that mentioned arsenic can appear in foods that are made from brown rice.  It stated that for the most part, it is a low amount and not harmful.  My question is – how does this affect people with celiac who consume more products made from brown rice than the average person?

Dear Reader,

That’s a great question, especially since gluten-free folks eat so much rice.  I don’t believe we’ve ever addressed this topic here.   In doing some research for you and our readers, here’s what I found.

In March, researchers at Dartmouth College reported that they found high levels of arsenic in rice. The primary concern was organic brown rice used primarily in baby food and energy bars.  The baby food product had arsenic concentrations six times the federal limit of 10 parts per billion for arsenic in drinking water.  Cereal bars that contained rice products like brown rice syrup and rice flour had arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 parts per billion, according to the researchers who tested the products.  The problem with baby food is that toddlers are growing quickly no one knows how arsenic might affect their development.

The problem with energy bars is that there may be three or four different rice products in it – the brown rice syrup, rice flour, and so on – and those foods seem to have more arsenic in them. It wasn’t concentrated so much as there’s just more rice in them.

Surprisingly, there are no federal limits for the amount of arsenic that’s acceptable in food. So it’s impossible to know if eating arsenic at these levels is a problem.  “For people who occasionally eat cereal bars, I don’t see a problem,” says Brian Jackson, the analytical chemist who led the study, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.   “But for the toddler formula, until we know what a safe arsenic concentration is, I’d recommend discontinuing that formula,” Jackson said.

The scientists say they are not terrified, but cautious.  They advise consumers to steer away from some of the foods that might have four or five different rice ingredients. And, for folks who eat a lot of rice, like those on a gluten-free diet, they say it’s okay to eat rice. But just vary your diet.  They also say that there is possibly a slightly higher amount of arsenic in brown rice than in white rice, probably due to the fact that the outside layer is still on it.  In addition, arsenic levels vary greatly depending on where and when rice is grown, and there’s, as of yet, no measure of what types of rice are more likely to have low levels.

So why is arsenic in rice?  The plant apparently has an affinity for arsenic, a toxic element that occurs naturally in soil and groundwater. “It turns out that rice needs to take up silica,” Jackson explained, “and in paddy conditions, arsenic is chemically very similar to silica.”

Arsenic in drinking water has been studied for a long time; it’s a big problem in Bangladesh, and also can be an issue in the United States. Arsenic also shows up in apple and grape juice, according to tests conducted by Consumer Reports.

Currently the FDA is sampling rice around the United States and doing a study as a result of those tests.  In coming months, hopefully, they will establish a food safety standard for arsenic in food.  Meanwhile, based on this research, it might be wise to limit the amount of brown rice we consume.