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Rice Growers Respond

Rice producers fired back at Consumer Reports. In a lengthy rebuttal posted on the USA Rice Federation web site, they called the magazine’s investigation “incomplete and inaccurate.” 

“We believe rice is safe and it’s premature for CR to call on consumers to limit their intake of rice. FDA agrees,” says Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokeswoman for USA Rice.

The statement points out that there are no established studies directly connecting eating rice with bad health effects. 

That’s true, but only because those studies “simply haven’t been conducted,” says Andrew Meharg, PhD, chair of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Heath Effects at Lower Levels Uncertain

At high levels, arsenic causes discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness, paralysis, and blindness.

But at the low levels most people are exposed to through food and drinking water, the dangers are less clear. People who drink water with moderate levels of arsenic -- higher than levels typically seen in the U.S. supply -- over a long period of time have higher rates of bladder, lung, and skin cancers. Long-term exposure has also been linked to heart disease, and in children, to problems with learning and IQ.

Because arsenic is naturally found in the soil, water, and air, it’s also found in many fruits and vegetables. Rice is uniquely vulnerable to contamination with arsenic, however, because it’s grown in flooded fields. Rice plants soak it up through their roots and store it in the grains.

“The arsenic levels measured in rice are relatively high. They are higher than levels measured in other grains such as flour products or than those measured in fruit juice,” says Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.

Her analysis of government nutrition data found that people who eat one rice food item have arsenic levels that were about 44% higher than those who didn’t. People who reported eating two or more items had 70% higher arsenic levels than those who had none.

“I believe it is time to set standards in food, as well as to monitor arsenic levels in food, and to find methods to minimize arsenic exposure through dietary intake, especially rice,” she tells WebMD.

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