Growing up in a home with a Japanese mother, I considered white rice a dietary staple. I estimate we ate white rice at least three times a week, possibly more. In fact, my mother shunned the potato, as did I for many years,until I married a Dutchman.
When my children were still babies, and it was time to start them on solids, I remember mixing some of my breast milk with organic rice cereal as their first “food.” It was what was recommended by nearly every pediatrician and respected baby book author at the time.
A few years ago, I tried embracing brown rice after hearing how much healthier it is than white. I often ordered it in restaurants in and around San Francisco, where the waitstaff are all trained to ask if you want white rice, brown rice, or a mix. I sometimes bought sushi made with brown rice from my favorite natural foods market. But I could never made the switch completely. Maybe it was the result of too many years enjoying the naturally sweet stickiness of white rice, or the fact that white rice absorbs the juices and sauces from my cooking so much better than brown.
Regardless, I now shun brown rice entirely. Please read on to discover why.
First, some basics… White rice is essentially brown rice in which the bran and germ portions have been removed. White rice carries a higher glycemic index, which suggests brown rice results in a slower increase in your blood sugar level after consumption. Doctors and nutritionists also consider brown rice healthier because the refining process of white rice results in a loss of vitamins, fiber, lignans and minerals, such as magnesium and manganese. Brown rice is also a rich source of selenium, which is thought to reduce the risk of major disease, including cancer, arthritis and heart disease, and it’s high in manganese, which helps the body synthesize fats. It’s surprisingly rich in anti-oxidants, and it’s high in fiber, an essential part of our diet to maintain healthy bowel function and help prevent colon cancer. Studies have shown that replacing white rice with brown rice in your diet will lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.
That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And those of you who have switched to brown rice are feeling pretty good about your choice. But it turns out not to be as simple as that, and in fact much more serious.
Brown rice is also full of phytates, which bind to vitamins and minerals preventing absorption. So while brown rice may contain more vitamins and minerals, those vitamins and minerals aren’t being absorbed. The phytic acid is also thought to inhibit the enzymes which break down protein, impairing proper digestion.
But what’s most concerning is that a 2012 study conducted by Consumer Reports Magazine (CRM) found many popular rice products contained arsenic–some with dangerously high levels of arsenic, including foods marketed as “healthy” snacks and organic rice cereal for babies. The study tested more than 200 samples from a variety of rice products, many of which are targeted to the rapidly growing “gluten-free” market. Here’s the CRM chart summarizing their findings.
Arsenic, a known human carcinogen that is particularly harmful to infants’ and children’s developing brains, is known to cause lung, bladder and skin cancer in humans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no “safe” level of inorganic arsenic exposure. The CRM report stated, “We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern. ”
Where both brown and white rice were tested within the same brand, the brown rice was found to have higher arsenic levels than the white rice. In some cases, brown rice had nearly twice the safe limit (based on the 5 parts per billion per serving recommended by the EPA for drinking water). This makes sense since the arsenic concentrates in the outer layers of the grain which get removed when processing to white rice.
Arsenic is also found in fruits and fruit juices and vegetables, which together provide the greatest exposure to arsenic for most of us. Some growers will argue that arsenic is naturally occurring in soil since it can leach into soil from the weathering of rocks and minerals in the earth that contain arsenic. However, humans are the main cause of arsenic in our soil and water. The U.S. continues to the the world’s leading user of arsenic. It’s estimated that more than 1.5 millions tons have been used for industrial and agricultural purposes since the early 1900s. So it comes as no surprise that the CRM study found that rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas–where the vast majority of rice is produced in the U.S., had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic compared with samples from elsewhere. Those states have a long history of cotton production, a crop that was heavily treated for decades with arsenical pesticides.
The risks of arsenic exposure are greatest for children and pregnant women, because that’s when young brains are developing. The CRM study found concerning levels of arsenic in infant cereals, usually fed to babies as they begin solids between 4 months and 1 year of age. Some nutritionists would suggest pregnant women avoid rice all together, and that babies should never be fed rice or rice cereal.
My recommendation? I’m not a licensed nutritionist, but I would offer this:
– Avoid eating brown rice entirely or eat it only on rare occasion.
– Considering what little nutrient value white rice provides, and knowing that you and your family will still have arsenic exposure from fruits and vegetables, make your choice accordingly.
– Do not buy rice grown in the south-central region of the U.S.
– Buy Lundberg Family Farms Organic rice, if it’s available where you live since it had the lowest levels of arsenic and the company is looking at ways to lower the levels even further.
– Reduce arsenic levels by washing your rice well with warm water (about 6-8 changes of water) until the water runs clear.
– Further reduce arsenic levels by washing your rice a final time after it’s cooked using filtered water or regular tap water if you know your local water doesn’t contain significant levels of arsenic.Be well!