High Levels Of Arsenic Found In Rice

Researchers at Dartmouth College recently found high levels of arsenic in rice. Particularly high amounts were found in brown rice syrup — a sugar substitute used in foods aimed at young children.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Researchers at Dartmouth College recently found high levels of arsenic in rice. NPR's Nancy Shute is covering this story. She's in our studios.

Welcome to the program.

NANCY SHUTE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And of course, she also follows this story on our food blog, called The Salt.

So why would there be arsenic, a poison - it's what we know it as, anyway - in rice?

SHUTE: You know, Steve, this is a surprise to a lot of us. It turns out that arsenic is naturally occurring in soil and water. And rice plants seem to have this special ability to soak up more arsenic from the environment than other plants. So it's just there naturally.

INSKEEP: This has been happening for thousands of years, though? I mean, people have been eating rice for a long time.

SHUTE: That's right. We're not talking about enough arsenic to poison you. We're talking about low-level exposure that over time, might increase your risk of cancer or heart disease, maybe diabetes. So that's what the health folks are concerned about here.

INSKEEP: Any particular difference between brown and white rice?

SHUTE: You know, some studies have found that brown rice might have a bit more, probably because it hasn't been polished. And you know, some studies have said maybe basmati has a little less. But the problem is, we really still don't have enough information to be able to say OK, this rice has less, this rice has more.

INSKEEP: Well, maybe that's the answer to the next question. Any particular difference between organic and non-organic rice?

SHUTE: No. There's no difference in the amount of arsenic in organic versus non-organic.

INSKEEP: What got scientists thinking about this to begin with?

SHUTE: There has been problems in Bangladesh, where there's high levels of arsenic in water, and they've been able to document more health problems there. And recently, that's got the scientists looking in other places, too.

They were also concerned because in the United States, in the past, we used arsenic in pesticides - on cotton. Some of those areas are now growing rice. And that might boost the amount of arsenic in our rice here.

INSKEEP: Right.

SHUTE: But we really don't know.

INSKEEP: OK. So we're talking about naturally occurring arsenic that gets concentrated by the plant. There may be circumstances where there's also been pollution that puts more arsenic in the soil, and gets even more concentrated by the plant. That's what we're talking about here.

SHUTE: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Does it also get concentrated even more - because we're talking, in many cases, about processed foods like rice bars for children, and that sort of thing?

SHUTE: Exactly. That's what the Dartmouth researchers found out. They looked at products that would have maybe three or four different rice products in it - the brown rice syrup, rice flour - and those foods seem to have more arsenic in them. It wasn't concentrated so much as there's just more stuff there.

The scientists are also concerned about foods for babies. Very often, we feed babies rice cereal and things like that. And children are growing quickly. Their bodies are small. The British said two years ago, don't feed kids rice milk - because they might be getting more arsenic than you'd like.

INSKEEP: The United States has not said the same thing?

SHUTE: We have standards for arsenic in drinking water, but we don't have standards for arsenic in food.

INSKEEP: Should I be terrified?

SHUTE: The scientists say not terrified, but cautious. And they said two things. One thing we can do is steer away from some of these foods that might have four or five different rice ingredients. Another thing is that sure, go ahead and eat rice. But when you do, you know, mix it up. Maybe have rice but then have some other foods, too. Just vary your diet.

INSKEEP: So the bottom line is, there's always been arsenic in rice - tiny, tiny, tiny amounts of it. And the key is moderation; just don't get too much of it at any one time.

SHUTE: That's right. The FDA is sampling rice around the United States now and doing a study. We expect to have the results of that sometime this spring, and we'll be covering that in NPR's food blog The Salt.

INSKEEP: Nancy, thanks very much.

SHUTE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nancy Shute.

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