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Debra Lipson/Medill

Following a Consumer Reports study that tested 200 U.S. rice products for arsenic, the FDA is conducting its own analysis.

FDA testing rice products after arsenic report

by Debra Lipson
Oct 18, 2012

Healthier rice choices are easy to make. Brown over white, long grain instead of refined. Simple, right?

Not so much. Following a Consumer Reports study on arsenic levels in rice, the choices are less clear -- at least until the end of the year.

In response to the study last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is testing approximately 1,200 rice products for arsenic in the U.S. marketplace.

Thus far, the FDA has sampled 200 products. The data collection and analysis will reportedly be complete by the end of 2012.

The FDA has monitored food safety and contaminants since 1991.

In the Consumer Reports study, more than 200 U.S. rice products were analyzed for arsenic. The study set a standard of five parts per billion and results showed at least ten rice products contained between five and 10 ppb of arsenic.

While the federal limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb, no limit exists for food sources. The study’s authors encouraged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set guidelines.

Media focus on the study caught American consumers’ attention and echoed earlier reports of arsenic levels found in apple and pear juice. Many baby foods, gluten-free and vegetarian products are rice-based.

The population consuming rice is vast and clearly the contamination exists, health professionals say. However, critics argue the threat’s certainty and whether rice should be given a rest.

Arsenic is a chemical element existing in the environment thanks to volcanic eruptions, rocks, mining and ore smelting contamination, and pesticides. Organic and inorganic arsenic compounds can be found in water and soil.

The USA Rice Federation notes that since arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in food and water, it is next to impossible to rid them of contaminants.

This is nothing new.

“If we continue to test, we will continue to find it,” said Chicago pediatrician Dr. Anjali Rao. “Last summer it was found in apple juice, now it is rice. There will be something else … there is no way to escape it.”

Arsenic is common in grains and produce due to absorption. According to the FDA, long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers as well as heart disease.

Since its study is incomplete, the FDA had no recommendations for rice intake. The USA Rice Federation reiterated this in a news statement, citing the best strategy for rice consumption is to eat a healthy, balanced diet – no avoidance of rice necessary.

Many health professionals agree.

“The takeaway message for the average healthy American is to eat a variety of grains and not to stress over arsenic in rice,” said Brooke Schantz, Chicago-based registered dietitian and president-elect of the Chicago Dietetic Association.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital registered dietitian Beth Doerfler shares a similar view. “I don’t want my patients to feel like they can’t eat rice, because we don’t know enough about the situation to make formal recommendations.”

Doerfler said it is reasonable, especially for children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, to substitute another healthy grain for rice. This way, they avoid having a single grain source on a regular basis.

“As a mother myself, why not take precaution and do partial avoidance of rice if we have alternate nutrition sources,” said Dr. Rao.

Although health professionals tout brown rice as a nutritional powerhouse, the Consumer Reports study said it absorbs more arsenic than its white counterpart. Schantz suggests substituting barley or quinoa for a healthy, protein-packed change.

Although some find arsenic levels in food alarming, “There is no need to be hysterical over the finding and purge our pantries of rice products,” she said.