It turns out that rice, a staple food for so many cultures around the world, contains arsenic. But do rice-loving Australians need to worry about that? Thankfully, it seems we don't. Here's what you need to know:
A lot of foods contain arsenic - a natural contaminant found in soil, bedrock and water - but rice is particularly good at absorbing the toxic chemical. It may have something to do with how it is grown; one of the most poisonous forms of arsenic, inorganic arsenic (which has nothing to do with the method of farming; inorganic is a chemical term), is mostly found in water, where rice is grown.
And while this isn’t new information, there’s a growing body of evidence to show that the levels of arsenic in rice could pose a threat. A recent study by the Swedish National Food Agency (SNFA) recommends that adults who eat rice every day should cut down, and that rice cakes, which contain the most arsenic of all rice products, should not be given to children under six. This follows a study out of the US with similar findings. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Pediatrics, the study showed that concentrations of arsenic were twice as high in the urine of infants who ate rice (white or brown) than those who ate none at all. The highest concentrations were in babies who were fed rice cereal. Margaret Karagas, the lead researcher on the study, said, “There’s a growing body of evidence that even relatively low levels of exposure can have an adverse impact on young children.”
That impact can be wide-ranging. One Bangladeshi study, from 2004, showed that children who were exposed to arsenic in drinking water scored significantly lower on standardised tests, and a 2013 study found that pregnant women who consumed even very low levels of arsenic from food products went on to have children who were much more likely to develop respiratory problems in the first four months of their lives. Arsenic consumption has also been linked to liver, kidney and prostate damage.
So exactly how worried should Australians be about all of this? The answer, put simply, is: not very.
So exactly how worried should Australians be about all of this? The answer, put simply, is: not very. Saffron Urbaniak, a spokesperson for Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) says that while arsenic has a “scary reputation”, “the reality is the amounts we are naturally exposed to in our diet are no cause for concern for those people consuming a varied diet over the long term.”
You can happily dig in to this Thai yellow chicken rice - get the recipe here.
FSANZ has strict limitations on the amount of arsenic found in rice (one milligram per kilo) and monitors levels of arsenic through the Australian Total Diet Survey (ATDS), and also through an independent laboratory. Both reviews, Urbaniak says, show that the levels of arsenic we all consume aren’t concerning.
That said, the body is aware of the recent developments, and will be conducting a review of all metal contaminants in foods, including the current recommendations for children and rice consumption.
If you are still concerned, perhaps there’s comfort to be found in this fact: the Swedish study found a nifty way to cut the amount of arsenic in rice in half - and you’re probably already doing it. Boil in lots of water, drain the water off, and eat.
And in season 6 of Trust Me I'm A Doctor, Michael Mosley finds that soaking the rice before cooking appears to reduce the arsenic content event more (watch it on SBS Monday 6 March, and then on SBS ON Demand, to find out more about his investigation into arsenic in rice).