By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
Move over juice--rice and rice products are now garnering considerable attention for being a source of arsenic, thanks to a recent Consumer Reports article. Following a report they published last January about concerning levels of arsenic in both apple and grape juices, the popular magazine now reveals surprising findings about rice and its many forms in 60 products commonly found in grocery stores.
Turns out there's arsenic--and sometimes, "worrisome amounts," according to the report--in a range of rice products, including organic rice baby cereal, rice breakfast cereal, brown rice, and rice milk.
The report itself--and no doubt the media frenzy surrounding it--has led many of us to scratch our heads, and wonder if we unknowingly exposed our families to a potentially dangerous chemical. You may have even thrown out all the rice and rice products in your cupboard. But are we overreacting?
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Before you jump on what's sure to be an anti-rice bandwagon, it's important to understand what arsenic is, and to know that it's not all created equally.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, arsenic is a chemical element naturally found in water, air, food, and soil. It also occurs as a result of contamination from human activity (such as burning coal, oil, or using pesticides that contain arsenic). Although found in both organic and inorganic forms, inorganic arsenic is the form that has been linked with higher rates of skin, bladder, and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. Some studies have also suggested that chronic exposure to arsenic can contribute to cognitive and other developmental disabilities.
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Although arsenic works its way through soil and water into many healthful foods, including grains, fruits, and vegetables, the FDA, which has monitored arsenic levels in foods since 1991, says rice may be more susceptible to absorbing arsenic than other grains.
Despite the findings by Consumer Reports and its own, just-released preliminary study findings on an analysis of 200 grocery store items (with another 1,000 to go),the FDA won't, at this time, tell Americans to forego rice and rice products. Instead, it urges them to consume a variety of grains as part of a well-balanced diet.
Consumer Reports, however, suggests limiting infants to no more than 1 serving a day of infant rice cereal. They also encourage diets with lower arsenic grain options, including wheat cereals, oatmeal, and corn grits. Daily rice drinks for children under age 5 are not recommended. Until more information is known, it's probably wise to heed the advice of both the FDA and Consumer Reports. Continue to feed your child--and yourself--a varied diet with foods from all the basic food groups. Also, mix up the foods you choose from each food group--that way you'll consume different combinations of nutrients, and at the same time, limit your exposure to chemicals that may prove to be harmful.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics says additional research is needed before recommendations can be made on the possible risks involved in consuming rice and rice products, including baby cereal.
If you're concerned about arsenic in your favorite rice product, contact the manufacturer or the FDA. And if you decide to remove rice and rice products from your diet, be sure to fill the gap with other healthful whole grain foods to get complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, and other valuable nutrients.
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