Arsenic in Our Natural Food -- Facts and Options
By Blooming Grove
The macrobiotic diet and "brown rice" diet are practically synonymous yet, recently, it's been in the news that all rice, especially brown rice, contains a fairly high amount of arsenic. Among folks who practice a macrobiotic lifestyle, should this be a cause for concern?
The answer is clearly yes. To me, articles like this one should be on the home page of every macrobiotic web site. This is an important discovery and there's no reason to believe that our rice hasn't been this way, for decades. Although this is a serious development, there is no reason for panic. A little clarity and information can go a long way. There's a lot that we can understand and, actually, much that we can do to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. The following comments are mostly based upon the article Arsenic in Your Food, in the November, 2012 edition of Consumer Reports Magazine, as seen from a macrobiotic perspective.
Of the types of rice tested, average arsenic levels were higher for brown rice than white (polished) rice. Because we understand that brown rice provides health and vitality, whereas white rice is little more than tasty starch pellets, this isn't good news.
By volume, there is more arsenic in vegetable produce and fruit juices (including wine) than in rice. However, because we consume less fruit juice and less non-organic produce, and more rice, the amount of arsenic in our grain is a primary concern. Yet, it's still important for people using the macrobiotic diet, and vegetarians, to heed this brief statement (made almost in passing) that vegetable produce often contains even more arsenic than rice! Please read the recommendations, below, with this in mind.
Because arsenic is primarily stored in the bran layer (the outer layer that makes brown rice brown) we suspect that the arsenic is transferred in recipes that include rice bran as an ingredient. To the best of our knowledge, none of these recipes have been tested. They would include Takuan Daikon pickles. Fortunately, the commercial varieties have not, so far, been drawn into question because they're produced in Japan. Still, this should be considered; especially among those of us who make our own Takuan pickles, and possibly other recipes including rice bran, in the USA.
Because arsenic is also in polished, white rice, and most people consume it in the form of processed food (canned baby food, boxed breakfast cereal, precooked boxed rice) most people are consuming arsenic without any of the healthy benefits of brown rice.
If arsenic is in the soil, almost all plants will absorb it. Rice contains a significant degree of arsenic for two reasons. First, it's grown in flooded soil. The water allows the toxin to be more easily absorbed by the roots and stored in the grain. Second, although arsenic naturally occurs in very small amounts, the reason there's arsenic in our food comes from decades of arsenic misuse. The United States leads in this abuse. Since 1910, we've used about 1,600,000 tons in industry and agriculture. Some examples -- pesticides (especially cotton Boll Weevil), in livestock feed and, so, in fertilizer from poultry waste. If this misuse had not been dispersed and, for example, had been deliberately placed in the food of every human (and every mammal and bird on Earth) then none would have survived.
Possibly due to the Boll Weevil connection, rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas generally contain more arsenic. This suggests that rice grown elsewhere would be more favorable. On the average this is true, but arsenic levels sometimes spike in samples from other regions.
According to Consumer Report's analysis of federal health information, people who eat rice have about 44% more arsenic in their urine and blood. Let's assume that's 70% more for macrobiotic people. Soaking your rice in cool water, overnight, removes 30% of the arsenic. As the article states, "This is a traditional method of cooking rice in Asia." You'll also find this step in many macrobiotic cookbooks. Some of the most delicious rice I've tasted has been prepared with a soak on the porch prior to cooking. The guidelines are rinse and pour. Repeat until the water is clear, then soak overnight. Apparently, the traditional approach is most constructive. Imagine soaking your rice in a time and place where the rice only contained infinitesimal amounts of arsenic....
If you have infants or children in your care, do your homework. Stay up to date with the latest studies and try to import your rice from the cleanest locations. Follow the traditional recipes and Soak It overnight in cold water.
Because rice contains a significant degree of arsenic from being grown in flooded soil, consider alternative grains. The Consumer Reports article found that baby food made from oats had, on average, one fifth the arsenic found in rice. They recommended to eat wheat and oats because they tend to contain less arsenic. They also say that, although they haven't been studied as much, other options are quinoa, millet and amaranth. This makes sense, because these less-studied grains aren't grown in flooded soil. I may add upland rice. Of the above, I suggest millet because it's a traditional staple (more often used than rice among the poor and sensible) and, to me, the flavor and texture are superior.
Like the tobacco and petroleum industry, the USA Rice Federation (and all of the macrobiotic web sites I've seen) are living in a state of denial. Or, at least, are broadcasting denial. I think that the sooner a problem is brought to light, the better our chances are to fix it quickly. There is a movement on to reduce the arsenic in all of our food, including rice. Write your representatives.
In summary, choose the best rice resources. The best locations. Enjoy alternative whole grains. Millet could possibly be a great alternative and oats certainly are (especially for folks during the winter months). If you have an illness, then seek a counselor as usual but, if they recommend a high degree of rice, quiz them! "Have you considered the arsenic in brown rice?" Also, realize that we live in an unprecedented toxic environment. The fact that it may get worse before it gets better depends on you. Write your reps. Tell your neighbors!
And from time to time, enjoy some well-soaked, traditional brown rice. I'm in total agreement with "George". Short grain brown rice, cooked and chewed well, is the most balanced food for humanity. Shame on us, for depleting the free energy, for poisoning our atmosphere, our water, our soil and our food; to the extent that we now worry about something as basic as rice.
People are concerned and they're working on it. Here's a YouTube link from Grant Lundberg, of Lundberg Family Farms, in California.
As new information and alternatives arise, we'll post them here. As always, this is your web site. If you hear of new developments, please let us know. Because little is known of arsenic use in countries other than the US, we need to hear from other nations; including industrialized countries in Europe, the Middle East, and in Japan and China (the only country we know of with mandated minimum levels of arsenic in their food).
Wiki on arsenic.
The Consumer Reports article Arsenic in Your Food.
Update- November 23, 2013 Insights from Alex Jack.
Update- February 17, 2018
Protecting Infants and the RICE Act.