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Arsenic in Food
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is an element in the Earth’s crust, and is present in water, air, and soil. It occurs both naturally in the environment and as a result of human activity, including from erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides.
Are there different types of arsenic?
There are two general types of arsenic: organic and inorganic (these together are referred to as “total arsenic”). The term “organic” in this context has nothing to do with types of farming; it refers to chemical elements. If arsenic atoms bond with carbon, the compound is organic. If there’s no carbon present, it’s inorganic. Of the two types, the inorganic forms of arsenic have been more closely associated with adverse health effects.
How does arsenic get into foods?
Arsenic is present in water, air and soil and is absorbed by some food crops as they grow. It is not an additive or ingredient in these food crops and cannot be completely eliminated from food.
What about arsenic in rice?
Rice, a staple of the global diet, is a leading dietary source of inorganic arsenic, both because of how commonly it’s consumed and because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops.
Do organic foods have less arsenic than non-organic foods?
Because arsenic is naturally found in the soil and water, it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming practices. The FDA is unaware of any data that show a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice versus conventionally grown rice.
What are the health risks associated with arsenic exposure?
Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. The FDA is currently examining these and other long-term effects.
Does the FDA test for arsenic in foods?
The FDA has been testing for total arsenic in food, including rice, through its Total Diet Study program. The agency also monitors the level of arsenic in selected domestic and imported foods under the Toxic Elements in Foods and Foodware program. In 2011, after new methods to differentiate the forms of arsenic became available, the agency expanded its testing to help better understand and manage possible arsenic-related risks associated with food consumption in the United States.
What the FDA Is Doing About Arsenic in Rice
Why did the FDA choose to focus on arsenic in rice?
Preliminary data that have now been confirmed indicated that rice had higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods, in part because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops. Rice is a staple in the U.S. diet and is widely consumed, including by infants. Additionally, rice intake, primarily through infant rice cereal, is about three times greater for infants than adults in relation to body weight.
What does the FDA’s sampling data on rice and rice products show?
On April 1, 2016, the FDA released data that had been gathered to complete its review of arsenic in rice and rice products. The data were needed to enhance the agency’s understanding of arsenic in infant rice cereals. The data show the levels of inorganic arsenic in 76 rice-only cereals for infants and almost 36 multigrain and non-rice infant cereals and other foods commonly eaten by infants and toddlers. The infant rice cereals were found to have an average level of 103 parts per billion (ppb) inorganic arsenic.
The FDA’s data show that nearly half (47 percent) of infant rice cereals sampled from retail stores in 2014 were below 100 ppb inorganic arsenic, the level set by the European Union for rice and rice products destined for infants and children. It also found that a large majority (78 percent) was at or below 110 ppb inorganic arsenic.
The FDA compared these infant rice cereal samples to more than 400 samples it collected at the same time of other foods commonly eaten by infants and toddlers. The non-rice foods were found to be well below 100 ppb inorganic arsenic.
In 2013, the FDA released a broader set of test data for the levels of inorganic arsenic, which covered most types of rice grain and rice-based foods and beverages eaten in the United States, approximately 1,300 samples of rice and rice products in all. Among the rice/rice product categories in this larger data set, average levels of inorganic arsenic ranged from 1 ppb in infant formula up to 160 ppb in brown rice with other rice-containing products in between.
For its evaluation, the FDA considered “rice products” to include foods that contain rice grains (such as breakfast cereals or rice cakes) or rice-derived ingredients (such as rice flour or brown rice syrup).
What has the FDA done about arsenic in rice?
Based on its testing, the FDA on April 1, 2016 proposed an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This level, which is based on the FDA’s assessment of a large body of scientific information, seeks to reduce infant exposure to inorganic arsenic.
The proposed limit stems from extensive testing of rice and non-rice products, a 2016 FDA risk assessment that analyzed scientific studies showing an association between adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurological effects in early life with inorganic arsenic exposure, and an evaluation of the feasibility of reducing inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.
The FDA found that inorganic arsenic exposure in infants and pregnant women can result in a child’s decreased performance on certain developmental tests that measure learning, based on epidemiological evidence about arsenic, including dietary exposures.
Is rice from some parts of the country or world safer?
The goal of the FDA’s sampling was to provide an accurate measure of the average levels of inorganic arsenic in a wide range of rice varieties and rice products in the U.S. market, not to make state or country comparisons. To arrive at valid comparisons for more specific factors such as state or country or brand comparisons, one would first have to compare the same type of rice (e.g., white, jasmine, brown), and for most types of rice there are too few samples among our test data to support such comparisons. Further, numerous other factors can influence the arsenic concentration in rice, including soil composition, brands of fertilizer used, seasonal variability, and growing practices, particularly water use practices. For these reasons, though we provide our analytical results in their entirety, we caution against making any state-to-state or country-to-country comparisons.
Advice for Consumers
What is FDA recommending to consumers about eating rice and rice products?
Based on the currently available data and scientific literature, the FDA’s advice for consumers, including pregnant women, is to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food. Additionally, parents should follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and feed their infants and toddlers a variety of grains as part of a well-balanced diet.
Based on the FDA’s findings with respect to inorganic arsenic in rice,the agency offers the following advice to parents and caregivers of infants.
- Feed your baby iron-fortified cereals to be sure she or he is receiving enough of this important nutrient.
- Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for your baby, but it shouldn’t be the only source, and does not need to be the first source. Other fortified infant cereals include oat, barley and multigrain.
- For toddlers, provide a well-balanced diet, which includes a variety of grains.
Is it ok for me to eat rice and give it to my children?
Consumers can certainly eat rice as part of a well-balanced diet. Based on our scientific assessment, we think it would be prudent for parents and caregivers to feed their infants a variety of fortified infant cereals, rather than to rely solely on infant rice cereal. We also encourage pregnant women to eat a variety of foods, including varied grains.
Many infants with esophageal reflux tendencies rely on infant rice cereal as it is relatively easy to keep down. What does the FDA recommend for these infants instead of rice?
Wheat, barley and other grain-based infant cereals also readily absorb liquid and are similarly effective for infants with esophageal reflux tendencies. FDA recommends that children eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food. Parents of such infants may wish to consult with their child’s pediatrician on which infant cereals would best meet their child’s needs.
Can the consumer do anything to offset or reduce the arsenic in rice?
Published studies, including research by the FDA, indicate that cooking rice in excess water (from six to 10 parts water to one part rice), and draining the excess water, can reduce 40 to 60 percent of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice. The FDA recognizes that consumers do not typically prepare rice in this manner, similar to preparing pasta, and some may not wish to do so. Such preparation has been shown to lower the nutritional value of enriched polished and parboiled rice (reducing the levels of folate, iron, niacin and thiamin by 50 to 70 percent; these nutrients are added to polished and parboiled rice as part of the enrichment process).
The new FDA research also shows that rinsing rice before cooking has a minimal effect on the arsenic content of the cooked grain. Rinsing does, however, wash off iron, folate, thiamin and niacin from polished and parboiled rice. The tables below provide additional information on the study’s findings.
Percent reduction with rinsing
Percent reduction with cooking in excess water (averaged 6:1 and 10:1 ratios)