Rice is a common staple food around the world, with consumption in the West increasing as more multicultural diet patterns are adopted. But recently, reports have been circulating about rice containing inorganic arsenic, which is a known poison. Should we be concerned?
Arsenic is a natural element found in soil, and inorganic arsenic (not part of a carbon-containing molecule) is classed as a category one carcinogen by the European Union, meaning that it is a known cause of cancer. As it is present in soil, tiny amounts often get into food, but this is usually too small to cause problems. However, rice is a different case, because it is grown in flooded ground. This frees up the arsenic normally locked in the soil, making it easier to absorb by the roots of rice plants. Because of this, rice is 10-20 times higher in arsenic than all other cereal crops. But eating rice a couple of times each week isn't dangerous for adults, although it may be a concern for children and people who eat it more often.
Fortunately, there is a way to make rice safer. Like many foods and their mineral content, some ways of cooking reduce arsenic more than others. The best way to cook rice is to first soak it overnight, and then cook it in a 5:1 water: rice ratio. Compared to just boiling it in two parts of water to one part of rice, this reduces the level of arsenic by 80%. Alternative grains such as quinoa may be substituted for rice in some situations, especially if you're going for a nutrient-dense, Asian-fusion meal. Many people now are cutting out grains entirely because the Paleo or LCHF (low-carb, high/healthy fat) diet turns out to be what's best for them. In these diets, cauliflower rice or vegetables cut with a spiraliser are used in place of "normal" rice and noodles. Cauliflower rice is just made by lightly pulsing chopped cauliflower in a food processor, while zucchini is a popular choice for vegetable noodles.
Although arsenic is naturally-occurring, its levels in our environment are often much higher than they should be. One cause of unhealthy arsenic levels is coal-fired power plants, the biggest industrial emitter of both arsenic and mercury. Burning coal also allows other heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead and even uranium to escape into our world, which is not best for our health as we evolved with these metals locked in the ground, where they should be. Other causes of arsenic contamination include some mines and factories. While we have been taught that we need fossil fuels, exposure to arsenic can cause damage to the nerves, immune system and to developing foetuses. As for cancers, it has been shown to cause lung, digestive tract, skin, bladder, liver, prostate, kidney, lymphatic system and blood cancers (Source: "ToxTown", NIH).
All of this may seem terrible and insurmountable, but in recent years progress has been made. China, a major producer of rice, is finally beginning to reject coal in favour of clean renewables such as solar energy. In fact, the country doubled its solar capacity in 2016, adding 34.54 gigawatts over the year. This is still a small percentage of their total electricity production, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. One example of such new developments in China is the recent construction of a solar farm over a fish farm, which will supply electricity to roughly 100,000 homes. Overall, while arsenic and other heavy metals are a concern, there are ways to reduce their concentration in food, and the rise of renewable energy means less of them will be released into our environment.
Alexandra Preston is a degree-qualified naturopath located in Bundall on the Gold Coast. For any questions, including to book an appointment, click here.