Yes, arsenic is toxic. And it has been associated with lung, skin and bladder cancer, among other health concerns.
And yes, even though it contains arsenic, you can still eat rice.
But before you freak out about what this means, you need to know what arsenic is.
Arsenic is an element in the earth’s crust that’s naturally found in the air, water and soil, so the fact that it is in rice isn’t entirely alarming. Arsenic can however also be a result of human activity, such as mining or the use of certain pesticides.
There are two types of arsenic: organic (in the biological sense) and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is the kind that’s dangerous and is associated with adverse health effects ― and it’s the kind that’s present in rice, which is why you might want to moderate your rice intake.
Arsenic finds its way into food because it’s absorbed by the plant as it grows. Some plants absorb more than others, and rice seems to absorb the most among commonly eaten foods. The FDA has even set a limit on the amount of inorganic arsenic allowed in infant rice cereal. But the FDA has not set a limit on the amount of plain rice adults should eat. Instead, they recommend adults “eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.”
So how do you continue eating rice in good conscience? Educate yourself.
Consumer Reports suggests mixing up your grain consumption with other grains that are naturally lower in arsenic. Amaranth, buckwheat, millet and polenta have almost no levels of arsenic. Bulgur, barley, and farro have very low levels. And quinoa has less than rice.
According to the study on arsenic in rice by Consumer Reports, brown rice has higher levels of arsenic than white because high levels of the arsenic are found in the bran. The bran is removed to make white rice, so if you eat a lot of brown rice you might want to switch it up with white (despite the fact that brown rice is typically thought to be the better choice, nutritionally).
You can also cook rice in a way that will remove some of the arsenic. While the modern technique of cooking rice in a limited amount water helps retain the most nutrition from the grain, it also retains the arsenic. Boiling the rice in a 6:1 water-to-rice ratio (sort of how you’d cook pasta), draining the excess water once cooked, has been shown to remove up to 60 percent of arsenic levels in rice. Rinsing before you cook can also reduce arsenic levels, but the effect is minimal.
Feel free to still enjoy your lunch rice bowl or get down with fried rice. Just make sure you eat rice in moderation, and/or cook it with lots of water, and your arsenic intake should be in check. But when it comes to infants, regulate their consumption. Because remember, their body weight versus intake is very different than it is for an adult.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated high levels of arsenic in rice husk contribute to brown rice having higher levels of the carcinogen than white rice does. In fact, the husk is removed to make both types of rice; brown rice is higher in arsenic due to high levels in the bran.