Arsenic in rice: New research brings cheer

The presence of arsenic in rice sourced from eastern parts of India has been long recognised as a health hazard. But now, new research by Consumer Reports brings some good news.

The main routes of exposure to the most harmful types of inorganic arsenic are through food and water. One of the foods with the highest levels of inorganic arsenic is rice.

According to the findings of a recent study by Consumer Reports, basmati rice from India, Pakistan or California, and sushi rice from the US, has the lowest levels of total inorganic arsenic compared with other types of rice. Those are the best choices for consumers to reduce exposure to arsenic from rice.

As per the study, brown rice of a particular type always has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice of the same type. Alternative grains to rice such as amaranth, millet and quinoa all have significantly less inorganic arsenic than rice.

Adverse health effects: Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form and even low-dose long-term exposure has been proven to cause cancer and skin lesions. It has been associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, immunological and developmental effects.

Toxic harvest: Eating rice grown in fields irrigated by arsenic-contaminated water can be harmful in another way too. A study has shown that this could lead to enough arsenic accumulation in staple rice eaters to cause genetic damage.

Nutrients affected: Arsenic can disrupt amino acid synthesis in the grain, according to a study. This can reduce the levels of essential and non-essential amino acids found mainly in rice which are necessary for a healthy life.

Panel sets limits: The maximum permissible limit for arsenic in rice has been set at 0.2mg of arsenic per kg of polished rice by Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN body responsible for setting food safety standards. India has currently not set any standards and follows the international ones.

What to do

However, certain practices can remedy the situation.

(i) Monitoring water for arsenic

(ii) Changing irrigation regimes

(iii) Using arsenic-tolerant rice varieties

(iv) Growing rice crop in raised beds instead of flooded fields

Advice for consumers

• In addition to exposure to inorganic arsenic from rice, watch out for well water as it represents potential for exposure.

• Even if rice does contain arsenic, a little care in the kitchen can help reduce the toxin content in cooked rice to some extent. Using arsenic free water to wash rice, and cooking rice in excessive water in the order of 1:6 rice to water ratio can help reduce arsenic by about half.

Source: Consumer Reports, Down to Earth


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