Tricia Thompson, MS, RD is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker specializing in celiac disease and the gluten-free diet. She is the author of The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide and has a MS degree in nutrition from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA degree in English Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont.

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Living Gluten-Free

by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD, The Gluten-Free Dietitian
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A couple months ago I was asked to look into the issue of arsenic in rice. I hesitated because I was concerned about raising undue concern among those with celiac disease who must follow a gluten-free diet. I looked at my own gluten-free diet which I don’t consider to be rice based. The cereal, crackers, and waffles (which I use as bread) are rice based and I frequently eat rice at lunch or dinner. This got me wondering whether I needed to be concerned about the arsenic levels in my own diet. Arsenic in rice may be an important issue for people who follow a gluten-free diet if it is largely rice based. Fortunately, gluten-free diets do not have to be rice based. There are so many other gluten-free grains and flours to choose from and so many ready-made cereals, bread products, and pastas made from grains other than rice. It is a good idea to not eat too much of any food. As poet William Cowper said, “Variety's the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in both organic and inorganic forms. It may be present in soil, water, and air. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen and ingestion may cause an increased risk of certain cancers.

In the United States, arsenic standards have been set for water but not food. The Environmental Protection Agency allows no more than 0.01 milligrams of total arsenic per liter of drinking water. The Food and Drug Administration has the same standard for bottled water. No standards have been set for arsenic in food in the United States.

The European Food Safety Authority is in the process of conducting a risk assessment for arsenic in food. EFSA is also assessing:

“the typical ratios between inorganic and organic arsenic forms in different groups of foodstuffs; the contribution of different foodstuffs to human exposure for total arsenic and inorganic arsenic, including the contribution from drinking water; and the exposure of specific population groups (e.g. high consumers, infants and children, people following specific diets, etc.) and to provide an indication of the age group in which children would be most exposed to the toxic effects of arsenic.”

According to the EFSA, several foods may contain inorganic arsenic and contribute to an individual’s exposure, including rice and rice-based products. Recent studies have assessed the arsenic content of baby rice cereal, rice milk, and rice products.

The abstract from the study entitled, “Inorganic arsenic levels in baby rice are of concern” (Meharg AA, et al. Environ Pollut. 2008 Apr;152(3):746-9. Epub 2008 Mar 12) reads as follows:

“Inorganic arsenic is a chronic exposure carcinogen. Analysis of UK baby rice revealed a median inorganic arsenic content (n=17) of 0.11 mg/kg. By plotting inorganic arsenic against total arsenic, it was found that inorganic concentrations increased linearly up to 0.25 mg/kg total arsenic, then plateaued at 0.16 mg/kg at higher total arsenic concentrations. Inorganic arsenic intake by babies (4-12 months) was considered with respect to current dietary ingestion regulations. It was found that 35% of the baby rice samples analysed would be illegal for sale in China which has regulatory limit of 0.15 mg/kg inorganic arsenic. EU and US food regulations on arsenic are non-existent. When baby inorganic arsenic intake from rice was considered, median consumption (expressed as microg/kg/d) was higher than drinking water maximum exposures predicted for adults in these regions when water intake was expressed on a bodyweight basis.”

The abstract from the study entitled, “Inorganic arsenic levels in rice milk exceed EU and US drinking water standards” (Meharg AA, et al. J Environ Monit. 2008 Apr;10(4):428-31. Epub 2008 Mar 7) reads as follows:

"Under EU legislation, total arsenic levels in drinking water should not exceed 10 microg l(-1), while in the US this figure is set at 10 microg l(-1) inorganic arsenic. All rice milk samples analysed in a supermarket survey (n = 19) would fail the EU limit with up to 3 times this concentration recorded, while out of the subset that had arsenic species ...    Continue

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@ 1:56pm ET on September 17, 2009
Very interesting post Tricia! Thanks for doing this topic.
Beth Armour

@ 2:55pm ET on September 17, 2009
Tricia, thank you so much for this post. I first saw an article about this in the New York Times in 2007 (see link at end of my comment) and asked a celiac center and a celiac publication to look into it further -- I am so glad you did! My concern is that in children with celiac disease, it could be assumed that "safe" aresenic levels are less than those stated for adults. What are these levels? How can we know the source of the rice in our rice-based baked goods and flours?
Thank you! Elizabeth Carroll
NYT link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/science/13mobse.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=arsenic+in+rice&st=nyt

@ 3:26pm ET on September 17, 2009
I had no idea. Thanks for bringing this to light. Another reason to know where and how our food is produced. And it is not easy to answer those questions.

@ 2:02pm ET on October 1, 2009
a lot of rice grown in Texas is dryland rice, and therefore has no arsenic issues. In fact any dryland rice source is OK. Use TexMati, JasMati, etc and you'll be OK.

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