The Ugly Arsenic-in-Rice Controversy

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 Rice is one of  the most popular grains in the world. To those of us who need gluten free food, it's a substitute for gluten grains such as wheat, for many cooking purposes, and it's considered hypoallergenic.  In Asia it's a central part of the diet. In Gluten Free cooking and baking, it's usually well represented, and almost ubiquitous.  But it could also contain arsenic at harmful levels and so far, rice in the US isn't routinely tested for arsenic content. The gluten free community has already sounded the alarm about the possibility of arsenic in rice and how that problem is magnified in the Celiac community, where the most popular flour, wheat flour, is not used.  However, there isn't a lot of depth to many articles so I'm going to delve into this subject with gusto!

First a quote from the Verywell article just mentioned:  "the Mayo Clinic looked directly at levels of arsenic in people with and without celiac disease who were following the gluten-free diet  ...and found significantly higher levels in those who were gluten-free, regardless of whether or not they had celiac disease...  (they) also performed blood tests to determine levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium, and found higher levels of all three in people on the gluten-free diet, regardless of whether they had celiac disease or not ... Additional studies have backed up this research." So it's not just arsenic, but rice accumulates heavy metals as a matter of course. This may be what they mean by "additional studies."

In 2017, a boring agricultural report, that few people read, nevertheless, gave rise to a minor media alarm about arsenic in rice.  As is the way of these things, pundits got busy giving advice based on the seat of their pants instead of data.  For one thing, nobody picked up on the important detail that arsenic can directly cause diabetes.  But it was right there in the introduction.  Pretty soon the shouting was over and we went back to our fried rice, timbales, pulaos and pilafs.  But where there's smoke there might be fire,  a smoker, or an antique railroad engine.  The story, it turns out, is longer than just a few articles printed in academic journals in the mid 2010s.

So how did it start?  How did we even notice that there is a lot of arsenic in some varieties of rice (it's not all of them, and California rice is usually safe)?  This story starts in Bangladesh with childhood mortality in the 1970s, and if any story is going to illustrate how interconnected all life on earth is, then this will.  There's a video here (2012)  that shows how trying to provide clean drinking water to a developing area, caused high levels of arsenic in local drinking water.  Professor Andy Meharg has continued to study the effects of arsenic in humans and has published over 300 academic articles. More on what happened with the tube wells in Bangladesh can be found here.

Soon after this, the realization hit that water/flooding is used to grow rice in the Bangladesh region. And behold, rice concentrates the arsenic from the water, mainly into the hulls. Not long after that, the potential threat was being studied in many countries including the US and the EU. Studies in the US led to the realization that arsenic based pesticides had been used on cotton farms and now those farms were often growing grains like rice, barley or wheat. Rice seems particularly good at concentrating arsenic out of the soil or water where it grows.  In fact a filter made of rice husk has been proposed as a solution to high arsenic content of water in some areas.

Using rice husks in this way has prompted a theory that "white rice" is lower in arsenic concentration than brown rice.  From what we now know, that's true.  Unfortunately, this flies in the face of the "whole foods" and "low glycemic index" paradigms of health.
 Another aspect is that arsenic, in its inorganic form could be the radioactive type.  In the 1950s we were still testing nuclear weapons at ground level and that fallout won't go away in our lifetime. People often leave that out when discussing toxics in our environment because honestly there's not much we can do. However, what works for one type of arsenic works for the others. And the internet is full of cooking advice to lower arsenic in rice.

Various concerned groups in the US were taking action a couple of years ago, and debating how important the results are.  Now that much of the noise is over, let's look at what happened and what we can do to protect ourselves.  Unfortunately, nobody has a standard way to test arsenic in food products and no such regulatory oversight exists, despite this being a problem that's decades old.

Consumer Reports vs. ACSH

This is where the story gets ugly.  When alarming levels of arsenic in rice were reported by Consumer Reports, the very next day, the ACSH replied with a rebuttal.  Even if you heard of the "arsenic in rice" issue, you may not have heard of the ACSH, or even of their viewpoint. There's a lot of depth in this argument and these two articles barely scratch the surface of it.  It's a good way to show how consumer issues get bogged down with commercial messages from industrial food producers.

For instance, you might wonder... if rice is so dangerous, how come billions of people eat lots of it and are fine?  Are they doing something to mitigate the problem?  (Yes, more on that later.)  And if I'm supposed to only buy California white rice to be "safe" then am I not hurting the trade from subsistence farmers who certainly deserve my support?  Anyway the rice mentioned as "safe" is the most expensive, and that should trigger a red flag. Let's explore this further, and note that neither of the sources of this debate are talking much about the costs or the effect on the people who actually farm the food. 

So, without apology, this will be long and detailed.  If you enjoy deep thought on controversies related to health, read on... and please comment.  We all have our voice, and each valuable.

 Who is the ACSH?

I'm not a huge fan of Wikipedia, but it's a decent starting point sometimes.  There are problems with Wikipedia.  Their edit wars tend to squelch alternative voices, often long before those voices get a say.  They shilled for the Quackwatch website for several years until they finally toned it down and RationalWiki took over the smearing of alternative health practitioners (whether it was warranted or not).  And there have been several scandals including some where corporate public relations editors have used Wikipedia as a sales tool.  Wikipedia is now one of our American institutions and its integrity should be a of concern to everyone.

But if Wikipedia has critical things to say about a "consumer group" and even identifies it as an industry shill, with references to back it up, I tend to take it seriously, pending further investigation. 

This is what they have to say about ACSH. Since content can change, this is an excerpt from the Funding section of the article, as it was a few weeks ago when I started writing this article (I added some whitespace to make it easier to read):

    "The Scaife Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation provided ACSH's first financial support in the 1970s.[7] In her address on the 25th Anniversary of ACSH, Whelan noted that their critics such as Phil Donahue and Barbara Walters accused them of being a "surrogate" of the petrochemical industry and a "shill" for the food industry.[7] To appease their critics, ACSH only accepted funding from private foundations for two years.
However, as the media continued to indicate that ACSH was industry-supported, the Board decided on a fundraising policy through which "about 40% of ACSH [funding] comes from private foundations, about 40% from corporations, and the rest of the sale of ACSH publications."[7]

    As of 2005, they had received $90,000 from ExxonMobil.[28] Whelan told John Tierney of The New York Times in 2007 that "ACSH has a diverse funding base - we receive donations from private foundations and individuals and unrestricted (usually very small) grants from corporations. The fastest-growing segment of our funding base is individual consumers who are sick and tired of the almost daily baseless scares - and they write us checks to help support our work."[29]
In 2010, Whelan told The New Yorker that about a third of the organization's $2 million annual budget came from industry.[30] In 2013, leaked internal financial documents revealed that 58% of the ACSH's donations in the period from July 1, 2012 to December 20, 2012 came from corporations and large private foundations, many of which themselves had ties to industries.[3]
In addition, the documents revealed that the organization had on numerous occasions directly solicited donations from industry sources on the basis of projected reports on the specific issues in which those companies and industry organizations had such a stake.[3]"

There it is.  How our media messages on health are being distorted and who's profiting from the distortion.  Don't be lulled into a false sense of security, chemical companies have been using a tactic of muddling science for decades.  Become familiar with the rhetoric, because it's always the same.  When you hear "we need better / more rigorous studies" along with "it's expensive to clean it up" and then followed with "it will make consumer goods more expensive" you know you're listening to a chemical lobby.

They claim:  "The fastest-growing segment of our funding base is individual consumers who are sick and tired of the almost daily baseless scares - and they write us checks to help support our work." Really?  We certainly are tired of feeling criticized and told we are ignorant and our concerns are baseless,  by those who are supposed to be offering us wonderful products, and those who are supposed to be protecting us from harmful food additives.

If you dig deeper into the foundations that support the ACSH, they turn out to be selling a political viewpoint as well.  We're also tired of people making politics out of profiteering on our health, and then telling us that it's easier to cave in, and not worry about it.  I suppose I could eat pesticide laden, low nutrition boxed foods and then demand my doctor gives me more drugs to deal with the health issues that causes me.  But no thanks.  

Something that alarmed me when I saw it on their "About us" page, is, they challenge consumer groups to donate money to them to see if they will change their mind based on the donation.  This is a basic act of trolling.  Their creation and mission are at odds with the groups they criticize. It was always their intention to criticize certain groups, and especially individual consumer opinions.  If this is what they mean by "fastest growing segment" then it doesn't make their points any stronger.

What is Consumer Reports?

Not everyone has heard of them, so I'll let them introduce themselves in the following excerpt from their site.  In the USA they're an institution that protects consumers from shoddy and dangerous products, and acts as a clearing house of product reviews.  Before the internet they did that by publishing a magazine.  Now it's their website, but the magazine still exists.  It's not a perfect system, and plenty of corporate talking points do still make it into their pages.  But in a battle for my trust, between the likes of ACSH and CR, well.  I won't spoil the surprise.

"Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit member organization that works side by side with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. We use our rigorous research, consumer insights, journalism, and policy expertise to inform purchase decisions, improve the products and services that businesses deliver, and drive regulatory and fair competitive practices."

So now let's talk about Consumer Reports financials.  It's only fair, I covered the misdeeds of the shamelessly corporate funded ACSH, so let's see an example of an ethically funded consumer group.  In their About Us Page, we see several tabs.  Tabbing to the Financials section brings us to the most recent financial report and they have this to say about their non-profit contribution practices:

"CR does not knowingly accept contributions from corporations or businesses that present a real or perceived conflict of interest.The Organization accepts individual gifts and gifts from foundations that are not directly or indirectly connected with a corporation, the donation does not raise a conflict of interest, and the mission of the foundation is consistent with the core values of CR.The Organization will accept grants from governmental agencies and other nonprofit organizations with a mission consistent with that of CR."

OK so they make a decent effort to keep commercial interests out of their funding plans. Their list of donors for 2018 is here and I don't think it poses any moral or ethical issues.  Wikipedia has this to say about CR's editorial policy.

Regulatory Voices about Arsenic and Rice - FDA

By the time consumer groups and industry groups were butting heads, and we actually took notice, as customers, regulatory agencies had already thought about and even published reports on it.  Let's look.

In 2013, FDA was considering a limit of 10ppm in apple juice for arsenic. Now the proposed limit is 100ppm. Why?

FDA Risk Assessment Report (Arsenic in Rice), 2016, the executive summary begins like this:

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is issuing for public comment this assessment of health risks from inorganic arsenic in rice and products that contain rice (referred to in the report as “rice products”). The risk assessment was conducted by FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in consultation with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA National Center for Toxicological Research, and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The risk assessment provides: (1) a quantitative (that is, mathematical) estimate of cancer occurrence from long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products; and (2) a qualitative assessment – a review and evaluation of the scientific literature – of certain non-cancer risks, in certain susceptible life stages, from inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products. The mathematical model we developed for the quantitative risk assessment not only estimates risk from various kinds of rice and rice products, but also predicts changes in risk resulting from various mitigation actions, based on the best available science.
The results of the risk assessment are the predicted lifetime risk, expressed as number of lung and bladder cancer cases per million people, given in two ways: (1) the average person’s estimated risk attributable to long-term exposure to rice and rice products, over a lifetime – the “per capita” risk – and (2) the estimated lifetime risk posed by eating a given amount of rice or rice product every day, on average– the “per eating occasion” risk. The former reflects a population’s risk; the latter reflects an individual’s risk."

  • Point 1:  Does this seem to you like a baseless worry?  Why all this activity over something irrelevant? The FDA doesn't spend this much time on dry holes.

  • Point 2:  Did you catch that switcheroo?  They evaluated cancer and non cancer risks, then decided to predict lifetime risk based on the number of lung and bladder cancer cases? There are many things I could say about this, but number one is, hey how about gut issues?   Since they've mentioned diabetes in their report, it's odd that they'd focus on cancer only. The reason given is "not enough studies" in that area yet. Scrolling down to the assessment for non-cancer risks, they specify that at this time they're not even going to include other health effects like diabetes and heart disease. What they mean by "non-cancer" is, neuro-toxic effects on unborn children and babies.  Then they dismiss it as something that a child may grow out of.  

I strongly wish our health protective institutions were doing their jobs and cooperating more. Here's some local science on the connection between arsenic and diabetes.  It's not mentioned as a serious issue by the newly created "Toxic Elements Working Group" of the FDA. Maybe that's because "rice" isn't mentioned in that report, but the connection should be obvious.

I don't want to get too bogged down by quotes (from here) but a few need mentioning,

" there isn’t one single source we can point to that results in exposure to these metals" (what about rice?)  and

"we are exploring ways to get input from all of our stakeholders" (input was already given in the assessment, if it wasn't enough, reopen it for comments) and

" the data shows that the levels of some metals, like lead, have been in a general decline in the food supply" (yes over time, the metals are remediated in the soil by the plants themselves, but how can we make it safer to eat the food thus produced?), and

"We develop better methods for detecting these metals, so we can detect them at much lower levels in foods than we could before. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more of these contaminants in our foods – just that we are better able to find them" (the UK researcher said it was easy to test for arsenic, back in 2012).

Perhaps the most perplexing quote is "Once we zero in on the problem, we can offer remedies."  Yet the USDA first offered a remedy for consumers to protect themselves, 9 years ago (next section).

In my opinion, FDA should immediately provide a public advisory notice to consumers about the risk of arsenic in rice that includes instructions for how to rinse it and/or soak it before cooking, and why that's especially important when cooking with rice.  They should also advise industry to reduce dependence on rice in processed foods until they finish studying the problem.  That would put incentive where it needs to be:  industry would immediately lobby them to hurry up and finish their studies and finalize their advice because in the meantime, they're losing money. And it would put the information where it needs to be: out in the open where it can help moms and Celiacs make better decisions while the science comes in.

So how about the USDA?

As far back as 2009, the USDA had cooking advice for people concerned about rice's arsenic content.  Unfortunately, the links in that article are broken  and since it was 10 years ago, it seems the UK site it was linking to has removed the document. I wasn't able to find it by searching either.  So what else do they say?

The USDA Agricultural Research Service in 2012 (quoted below), published a report on rice, arsenic and how its affected by farming practices.  Apparently there's an illness that reduces yields called straighthead which is caused partly, by too much arsenic.  Typically this happens when a cotton field is converted to a rice field and there is a lot of arsenic residue from the pesticides used on cotton.

 "Research with colleagues at the University of Arkansas is underway to evaluate a range of irrigation practices to determine their impact upon yield, milling quality, and grain arsenic accumulation. These results will be used to determine if it is economically feasible to use less irrigation water (intermittent flooding) and still maintain high yields and good milling quality while reducing arsenic in the grain.

Results from an initial laboratory study conducted by ARS researchers in Fayetteville, AR, have shown that adding aluminum sulfate to arsenic-treated soil can reduce arsenic solubility by 70 percent. A follow-up study is now underway in the field to evaluate the impact of different rates of aluminum sulfate on arsenic accumulation in rice plant leaves and grain when grown on a soil where MSMA has been applied."
Not sure I'm all thrilled by the idea of aluminum sulfate being added to soil either. But thankfully, a flood and dry cycle can help reduce the problem without more chemicals being added.  One wonders what an organic farmer would do in such a situation.  Flood/dry cycles are about the only remedy there.  But presumably an organic farmer isn't using a field where MSMA was applied so that arsenic concentrated in the soil.

Many of the sources I've quoted specify that one of the highest arsenic levels in rice are found in rice from the US.  I am truly sorry to hear that and I worry for the farmers involved, as many of them are probably in the Southeast and formerly cotton or tobacco farmers.  Nobody wants to hurt the farmers and there's an obvious need for solutions.  I hope we, Americans, look on this as an opportunity to use our technical ingenuity to solve this problem rather than seeing it as something that needs to be hidden away shamefully, or denied.  That can only lead to loss of crop value, loss of trust and loss of American's health.  We have a chance for a win-win here and I hope we don't lose it.

Instead of fearing the revelation that US rice may be toxic, or may have been toxic, we should imagine the glory of finding a lasting solution to the problem of rice accumulating more than 10ppm of arsenic, or indeed, high levels of any heavy metal.   Simple suggestion:  If the rice is already pulling the heavy metals out of the ground, then any soil contamination should be temporary.  Instead of trying to sell toxic rice, or trying to reduce the uptake, maybe we should purposely increase its ability to accumulate the arsenic (and not use the rice).  In theory that reservoir of arsenic should be finite, if it came from pesticides or herbicides.  Once it's gone, the future of US rice should be secure.  And it's a temporary sacrifice.

I imagine others have already suggested this.  But I haven't heard them do so, or read about it.  And it certainly won't solve every problem, such as a normally high level of arsenic in a particular location, or in the water.  But if the problem in the US is due to the soil from chemical inputs, then it should be a finite amount and eventually it will be detoxified by the rice itself. However, no responsible person should be trying to sell rice they used to remediate fields.And as long as chickens are being fed drugs with arsenic, using chicken manure compost should be avoided.  That's just common sense.

How risky is rice?

If you go to pubmed (and I recommend you do) and try the keywords "rice arsenic diabetes," today you get only 8 hits.  However if you use "arsenic diabetes" the number is well over 400.  Surely in 400 studies we've established some aspects of how arsenic affects diabetes.  And the very existence of the word "riceabetes" should be a flag that ordinary laypeople have noticed some kind of effect from rice (though we still need to establish what that effect is from arsenic contamination).

There are articles warning diabetics that rice can promote their disease (Healthline is not the only one, similar ones are on WebMD and even Mayo Clinic.)  They usually focus on the Glycemic Index though. If this is already taken as a fact, then wouldn't it be prudent to mention in the same articles that brown rice might have more arsenic which is known to damage the pancreas' beta cells?  It would seem prudent to connect these two facts (permanent link).  According to that editorial, arsenic increases inflammation too. I don't need any more of such things.

Note:  Be sure to read the "declaration of interest" in that article.  Either Danish pharmaceutical companies are unusually ethical, or there's a drug interest somewhere in all this. My irrepressible optimism hopes they're raising the alarm, for the right reasons.

These days, everyone fears diabetes or pre-diabetes.  Just for that reason alone, I'd say that people with an autoimmune disease should probably not eat rice in large quantities.  Manufacturers of gluten free snacks should take this into account and seek safer alternatives, plus it would be helpful to increase the number of organic and gluten free products offered.

My Experience and Thoughts on This

 Although I have mostly been staying away from packaged foods, even if they are gluten free, I didn't have that luxury while I was still new to the gluten free diet.  I relied much more heavily on packaged food in the first few months after my diagnosis, and those months are crucial for healing.  The recovery time after a person becomes fully gluten free can be from 1 to 3 years.  Well, it won't be one year for me.  I'm already into the 18th month.

I don't think arsenic in rice was the only reason I didn't recover quickly. But it would've been very helpful if the FDA set limits for arsenic in any and all foods, not just rice, and if the frequent use of rice flour in packaged gluten free foods was reduced to just occasionally.  I also think it would help if all oils, not just rice bran oil were tested not just for arsenic but all heavy metals, and we tested many more foods, especially foods intended for babies and those with a preexisting illness for heavy metals.  Rice may have just been a canary, and the story might be bigger than we know. But since we do know about the arsenic problem, not having contamination limits at least for rice, is just abdication of duty.

There are also things you can do to mitigate the effect of arsenic in rice. Heavy metals could accumulate in any grain or legume. Proper washing, using soaking and throwing away the water, and cooking in too much water (which is then discarded) are just some techniques that have been used over the centuries to refine grain and bean foods.  The people who developed those techniques didn't know why, but it seemed to make the food better so they kept doing it.  Recovering old techniques of food preparation can be valuable.  The most basic skill to learn here is how to wash rice before cooking.

There are many other techniques, soaking techniques, and there are "dal" versions of many beans/pulses available from Indian food stores.  Dal usually refers to a bean that has had its bran layer removed.  Since that's the place where most heavy metals accumulate, it can be a useful alternative to help reduce exposure.  You can always supplement with more green leafy vegetables, or root vegetables, for more fiber. 

Only you can decide if you're going to include rice in your diet.  I happen to love beans and grains and I don't think they're damaging as long as I properly prepare them.  But that's the trick, isn't it?  Proper prep means ignoring all those calls for not soaking beans, or for organizing what's healthy according to what's the highest fiber content.  It means using old methods of cooking which aren't compatible with today's busy world.  And it means remembering to soak things 6-12 hours in advance of using them.  I even soak rice now.  It reduces cooking time and helps me feel better about eating it.

Note:  If you're going to soak one cup of rice in 12 cups of water, it wold be good to have a garden where the water can be used up. There are also a few interesting uses for rice water, such as hair rinse -- you can check out youtube for that one. :)

Feature Creep

I used to work in Information Technology and we had a name for the sort of thing that's going on with the FDA with regards to rice and arsenic, it was called "feature creep" - you start out with a small problem you want to solve, and then everyone rushes at you with a hundred similar features that would be good to do also.  So you never solve the original, manageable problem, or management gets fed up waiting for the "ultimate solution" and cancels your project.  The solution was "iterative development."  This means you solve one problem at a time and add features in a modular fashion.  You don't wait until you've solved the whole problem of all plant foods that can possibly accumulate heavy metals.

This problem started with an observation about arsenic and rice.  Let's work on that one first and then continue to other issues that need solving.  So far, I have only noticed that one person is in charge of the Toxic Elements Working Group (of the FDA), or indeed identified as working on it.  Maybe it's a lack of transparency or it's regulatory paralysis because the current administration is quick to make big changes, but I've read nothing substantial from the FDA for a whole year on this subject. Or maybe I missed a press release?  I just want to know what's going on and where rice's arsenic levels stand in the "priorities" of the regulators.  

Tidbits of News

...from research, regulatory or watchdog agencies around the world:

According to Google News search, this is the most recent semi-mainstream news article on arsenic in rice.  There's a previous one from CBS News, but it's from last August.  The news is focusing ever more on the baby food risk, which is perhaps the most urgent. There was a flurry of articles last month, but mainly in industry and foreign press.  The cuts to the EPA have not helped.

Ireland is a bit vague on what a person should do, and will probably lead anyone concerned to just dispense with rice as a food completely.  That works as well as fear of mercury does for people who enjoy fish and shellfish.

Nanorust may be a way to get the arsenic out of the water if it's present in high concentration.

Rice bran oil accumulates more heavy metals than other oils, and the arsenic concentration is higher than that found in drinking water.  Furthermore, no limits have been set for arsenic concentration in the US or EU.

About a year ago, the US Government Accountability Office's blog had this to say about arsenic in rice.

Indian and Japanese researchers are looking for a link between arsenic exposure and diabetes

The first Consumer Reports article on arsenic in rice can be found here.

Even mainstream sources are now sounding the alarm (calmly) about arsenic in rice. 

Thank you for reading this far!  If you wish, leave me a comment and let me know what you think!


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